Madres parallelas (2021)
Directed by: Pedro Almodovar | 120 minutes | drama | Actors: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano, Auria Contreras, Carmen Flores, Alice Davies, Ainhoa Santamaría, Adelfa Calvo, Arantxa Aranguren
After a brief affair with married forensic archaeologist Arturo, with whom photographer Janis Martínez Moreno searched for the mass grave of her great-grandfather, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War, she unexpectedly becomes pregnant. She decides to keep her baby, Cecilia, and raise it alone. In the maternity ward, Janis gives birth at the same time as single teenage mother Ana. They promise to keep in touch, but after the births of their daughters, the two lose touch. After a few carefree months with Cecilia, Arturo believes it is not his daughter. Just to be sure, Janis requests a DNA test and gets a shocking result. Then young Ana reappears in her life, further complicating the mystery surrounding Janis’ parenthood. Back from the triumphant march with the semi-autobiographical ‘Dolor y gloria’ (2019), the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar comes with ‘Madres paralelas’, a surprising, thriller-like and slightly melodramatic tale about motherhood.
The shared motherhood of Ana and Janis forms the heart of the ‘Madres paralelas’, it is mainly their life stories that mix and contrast. One settled and experienced in life, the other a young chick. However, that says little about the extent to which you are responsible and function as a parent. In particular, the film tightens the emotional thumbscrews in scenes between Smit and Cruz and exposes the pain points about motherhood. All things considered, this is not a thriller based on a mystery, but rather raw emotions that are excellently fed by the main actors. Once again Penélope Cruz, as Janis, stars in an Almodóvar film and plays her character with great ease in a sensitively ambiguous way. Janis is the helpful neighbor and femme fatale all rolled into one. Opposite this is the disarming young Ana, played stormily by relative newcomer Milena Smit (she is half Spanish, half Dutch by the way). Smit is certainly a talent to keep an eye on and hopefully she will become the new muse of Almodóvar.
In addition to an almost mouth-watering soap-like plot and strong acting, Almodóvar, Cruz and Smit also raise interesting questions about motherhood. What if the almost mythical maternal instinct doesn’t show up? For example, Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), chose not for her daughter, but for her acting career and still feels guilty about it. Also, can you love a child whose origin you don’t know exactly, leaving you in the dark as in Janis’s family history? And to what extent do you pass this trauma on to later generations? After all, the loss of the great-grandfather in Janis’ family and the national denials about it are still felt in Spain. ‘Madres paralelas’ is extremely reserved with unambiguous answers and especially empathizes with the inner struggles of the characters. But the film leaves no doubt that trauma has to be dealt with.
Without it being ridiculous, Almodóvar puts ‘Madres paralelas’ in a jacket by Alfred Hitchcock, the “Master of Suspense”. Like one of his great examples, the Spanish director frequently uses fades and striking compositions in this film, even in seemingly everyday moments, such as after stirring a cup of coffee. This gives an alienating effect, as if you are diving into the subconscious. In addition, the film composer Bernard Herrmann, who often collaborated with Hitchcock, haunts the soundtrack. Except for the emphatic use of somewhat matte versions of the primary colours, these classic throwbacks are not out of place in this modern drama.
The films ‘Quicksand’ (Margot Schaap, 2021) and ‘The Lost Daughter’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal, 2021) could easily form a triptych with ‘Madres paralelas’. All three look at the beauty, challenge, and sacrifice of motherhood in a very personal way. It is remarkable that men in these stories mainly appear in the margins and hardly as full father figures. Incidentally, Almodóvar’s film is the most politically explicit of the three. It not only puts motherhood under the magnifying glass, but also connects it with the still dormant impact of the Spanish Civil War, almost a hundred years ago and in the eyes of Almodóvar never really gone in Spain. The trauma left over from this very bloody conflict still seeps through from generation to generation, woven into the national DNA, like the prophetic words of ‘Magnolia’ (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999): “We might be through with the past , but the past ain’t through with us.”