Watching ‘Parallel Mothers’ directed by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar during the Hollywood awards season buzz feels very different and unique because of how simple it is. It does not have grand cinematography or an eye-catching production design – it is not a musical or an epic sci-fi movie. It is, however, a movie that tells a story and does so beautifully. A movie about two mothers whose lives intertwine through coincidence, tragedy, and fate.
Parallel Mothers starts with Janis (played by Penelope Cruz) who is a professional photographer nearing her 40s. After a brief romance with an archaeologist, she becomes pregnant and happily accepts her decision to be a single mother. Even though she has a flourishing career and is content with her life, she is excited to have a baby as she confesses to feeling the pressure of her inner biological clock ticking constantly. Her enthusiasm stands out in stark contrast to Ana (played by Milena Smit), a pregnant teenager who is sharing the same maternal ward as her in the hospital. Ana is shunned by her father for her pregnancy and is neglected by her mother who wants to pursue her own career in acting. Even though they meet for a brief moment, she finds a kindred spirit in Janis and they decide to keep in touch even after birth.
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A few months after birth, Janis starts to feel uneasy when she sees how her daughter Cecilia does not look like either of her parents. She frantically conducts a maternity test but does not reveal the truth in a tender moment of maternal feeling as she decides to keep loving the daughter she brought home, even if Cecilia is not biologically hers. A chance meeting with Ana later confirms that hers and Ana’s babies were swapped accidentally in the hospital. Parallel Mothers then follows Janis as she deals with the conflict of revealing the truth and of keeping the daughter that she loves with her.
She grows closer to Ana but also struggles with the massive burden of the life-changing knowledge that she holds. As Ana deals with motherhood, her own complex emotions about her parents, and her quest for a free and independent life, so does Janis deal with motherhood, following her own ruthless and desperate maternal instincts. Parallel Mothers is also interspersed with brief scenes of Janis in a professional setting taking photographs or of her deciding she needs a babysitter to be with Cecilia all night so she can finally sleep peacefully. Even though the scenes are brief, they still remind the audience that we might be following the complicated story of Janis the mother. She is still a human in her own right with her own career and needs.
The feminist in me felt a little disgruntled when Ana readily took to motherhood and instantly switched to becoming a loving mother as opposed to the unsure, unhappy girl that she was initially because of her sudden pregnancy. However, Parallel Mothers did not ignore the other women in the movie. It showed an imperfect mother through Ana’s mother, Teresa. In one wonderfully witty moment, Teresa is shown to be exuberantly happy and describes how she impressed the director to be cast in the leading part of a play. After she is done sharing her joy over being cast in the lead role, she suddenly realises she ought to ask how her daughter and newly born granddaughter are doing. In later scenes, Teresa confesses how marriage was the only way for her to find freedom despite the fact that she was not ready to be a wife or become a mother. She is unapologetic about going on tours with the theatre company and leaving her daughter alone. She claims to have finally had a chance to live her dreams and has decided not to let it go.
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Parallel Mothers also delves into Janis’ own life and feminist lineage as she defiantly declares how she would happily be a single mother like her own mother and grandmother and even great-grandmother. She carries a rich legacy of memories and learnings from her grandmother.
What she also carries is a duty to the women of the province in Spain that she comes from. She explains how several men from her province, including her great-grandfather, were taken and ultimately killed during General Franco’s dictatorship and kept in unmarked graves. The killings not only left the women in the province alone to fend for themselves, but they also left them without husbands and their children without a father. With the help of the archaeologist and her child’s father Arturo, Janis sets out on a dedicated mission to excavate the unmarked graves and finally return the remains of their male relatives to the women so they could be buried properly and honoured in death. She meets her own grandmother and several other women during the journey, all of whom want to desperately reclaim their heritage and the brutal history that their mothers and grandmothers suffered through the act of excavation.
Parallel Mothers becomes a little slow at times and has moments of uneven pacing that might make the audience feel impatient. However, Penelope Cruz justifies her Academy Award nomination because of how she portrayed Janis. Unlike most other acting nominations, Cruz did not deliver an impassioned speech in a single scene that would stay with the audience even after the movie. However, she embodies Janis and the constant anxiety, stress, and tension that Janis feels even as she is overwhelmed by love for a child that is ultimately not hers. The supporting cast also provides strong support to make the film more realistic and give a veritable tragedy a more human face. Overall, Parallel Mothers shines in its simplicity and achieves the one aim that it had set for itself: telling a messy story with all its messiness.
Featured image source: The Guardian