Audiences who have only seen Penelope Cruz in her English-speaking film roles may not understand the power she has when working with longtime collaborator, director Pedro Almodóvar. Their new film Parallel Mothers is a showcase for her talents. The Spanish auteur knows how to pull out all of her charisma and emotional heft. In return, she often grounds his hyper-melodramas with rich character portraits.
The story involves two women and how their lives intertwine after they meet while pregnant in a hospital. It is also about Spain's troubled past and the way strong women move the nation forward. That may sound like a heavy tale but Almodóvar is a master of melodrama. He turns character exchanges into Hitchcokian interplays of suspense. Cruz plays Janis, a well-recognized photographer who while about to turn 40 has a line with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome archaeologist. She get pregnant and finds herself giving birth at the same time as 17-year-old Ana (Milena Smit). The two women are linked by their unexpected pregnancies. Janis is thrilled, Ana is not. Her circumstances in getting pregnant are harrowing. How their lives stay connected from that fateful moment is one of the film's pleasures. I won't spoil anything by describing the plot further.
Full of his signature gorgeous interiors and soapy tones, Parallel Mothers is classic Almodóvar. Cruz radiants as Janis, full of sex appeal and down-to-earth humor. She shines here, getting to take this character from extreme highs to deep lows. She keeps the film from veering into camp. Smit is striking as Ana. It is a low-key role but she creates sparks when playing off Cruz. There are some fun cameos for Almodóvar fans but the great thing is they rarely distract from the central story. The technicolor palette, gorgeous set design and fashion-forward costuming make the film a feast for the eyes.
If Parallel Mothers falters, it is in its pacing and runtime. The film feels slightly long and there is a moment in the film where almost any viewer will wonder where things are going. It has an aimless middle section that didn't quite work for me. However, the setup and pay off here are rich explorations into the interior lives of women and the reverberations of loss in Spanish families.
From its high concept to its visual panache, Parallel Mothers delivers a fine dose of melodrama. The trick Almodóvar tries here with the connections to the past and the big, emotional topic at the heart of this story don't quite work but its great to see one of cinema's masters try something new while hitting on all the things that make him great.