On the face of it, this has all the hallmarks of a vintage Almodóvar film: a focus on women (Penélope Cruz especially), fluid sexualities, deep secrets, clashing colors and to-die-for interiors. But this is also Almodóvar’s most overtly political film to date, dealing head-on with the mass graves and unidentified victims of the Spanish civil war. In his early career, in the shadow of the repressive Franco era, Almodóvar’s raucous, sacrilegious, hedonistic films were political by their very existence, but he has recognized that times have changed, and with the rise of the far right, Spain is in danger of forgetting the lessons it learned painfully not that long ago. So here he is digging them up.
The history is folded in, to a typically Almodóvarian concoction, with elements of thriller, comedy and melodrama. Cruz plays Janis, a photographer who becomes pregnant by one of her subjects, a forensic archeologist who excavates mass graves (and has a wife). In the maternity hospital she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenage mother who is also planning to raise her child alone. Neither will have an easy time of it. Their lives, and those of their daughters, become increasingly – some might say improbably – intertwined through a combination of tragedy, solidarity, desire and administrative error. But as usual Almodóvar unfurls his story with such consummate skill, it’s a pleasure to be swept along.
And once again, Cruz is magnificent (she won best actress at the Venice film festival last year for this). Her Janis is a contradictory but all-too-credible mix of determination and vulnerability. She is flawed and flighty and fallible, and arguably pretty evil, but it is impossible to hate any character played by Cruz, and she is never less than compelling. Even just watching her face as she reacts to information she’s reading on a computer screen is captivating.
For some, Parallel Mothers’ strands of modern motherhood and Spanish history felt like an uneasy fit, but Almodóvar clearly sees connections in terms of trauma passed down through generations, women banding together and getting by without men, and secrets that will only fester until they are brought to light. The ambition is admirable: few films this year succeeded in doing half as much, half as well. That 73-year-old Almodóvar can maintain his distinctive cinematic imprint while continuing to evolve is surely a sign of his greatness.