‘Parallel Mothers’ Review: Screenplay keeps it from reaching greatness
The 22nd film from prolific Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers, doesn’t quite hit the highs of 2019’s terrific Pain and Glory, but it is another solid soap opera from a reliable storyteller.
Penélope Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer whose shoot with archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) leads to an affair and subsequent pregnancy. While waiting to give birth, Janis shares a hospital room with young mother-to-be Ana (Milena Smit), with whom she strikes up a friendship and exchanges her phone number after the pair of babies are born. When Arturo meets Janis’ newborn, he becomes convinced at first glance that the baby is not his daughter, leading Janis to conduct a maternity test with surprising results.
Almodóvar is known for casting the same actors in numerous films throughout his career and Parallel Mothers is no exception. This is Cruz’s seventh time working with the acclaimed filmmaker. Along with her transcendent work in 2006’s Volver, this performance stands among the very best she’s given in one of his movies. Her transition from a freewheeling fortysomething in the midst of a tryst to an anxious mother with mounting uncertainty about her situation is heart-wrenching and utterly convincing. Even when completing uncinematic tasks like staring at a baby monitor or scouring a PDF on a computer screen for answers, she sells the character flawlessly even with the darting of her eyes.
But Cruz’s face isn’t the only one that Almodóvar’s camera loves in Parallel Mothers, especially in close-up.
In her second feature ever, Smit more than holds her own in a role that gets more knotty and complicated as the story progresses. The circumstances that led to Ana’s pregnancy are even more unfortunate than Janis’, and Smit’s fragile but resilient delivery gives her character instant pathos.
Both Cruz and Smit are crucial in portraying the unusual but deep connection that fate seemed to concoct when the duo met in the hospital. While overcooked writing serves up curveballs in the third act that cause these characters to act in ways that don’t seem especially consistent, the acting remains first-rate to the film’s final scene.
The main element that holds Parallel Mothers from greatness is the screenplay, which introduces a conceit that’s already a bit of a stretch to begin with then expands on it with subplots that don’t always pay off. There’s also a layer of sociopolitical commentary that’s clumsily lumped into this sensitive story about maternity that felt relatively unnecessary.
The movie begins and ends with heavy-handed allusions to the Spanish Civil War and ends with a political quote from Eduardo Galeano, a didactic turn that left me more confused than inspired. The dialogue isn’t quite as melodramatic as the tone of the film overall, but it does often spell out the main themes of the piece rather than allow the audience to glean insight into the characters’ feelings on their own.
The musical score by Alberto Iglesias also lacks any real subtlety, although this could be intentional and in keeping with the soap opera feel that Almodóvar seems to be evoking. The opening credits are grabby, but Iglesias’ urgent strings and slinking piano recall Bernard Herrmann’s work on any number of Hitchcock’s films. Based on the tone established, you may think you’re being set up to watch a psychological thriller like Psycho, but the tension in Parallel Mothers is, of course, much more subdued by comparison.
José Luis Alcaine, another frequent collaborator of Almodóvar, lends a keen eye to the cinematography, juxtaposing lush greens with bright reds to suggest a start/stop motion in keeping with the chief theme of disrupted motherhood.
There’s enough in Parallel Mothers to recommend it but too much holding it back to count it among Almodóvar’s best.
Playing only in theaters is Moonfall, a science-fiction disaster movie starring Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson about a pair of astronauts tasked with resetting the moon after it’s knocked from its orbit by an unknown force and put onto a collision course with Earth.
Also playing only in theaters is Jackass Forever, a comedy sequel starring Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O which finds the crew of the infamous MTV reality series reuniting one last time after an 11-year hiatus for more pranks and stunts.
Screening at Cinema Center on Feb. 4 and 5 is The Burial of Kojo, a Ghanaian drama starring Joseph Otsiman and Cynthia Dankwa about a man who is trapped in a mine shaft by his vengeful brother while his daughter embarks on a magical journey to rescue him.