“You need to know what kind of country you’re living in!” Janis snaps at Ana — the much younger woman who shared her hospital ward when she was giving birth — in Parallel Mothers, the Venice Film Festival’s opener. Has nobody told her there are 100,000 bodies buried in Spanish ditches? Doesn’t Ana understand that these people are victims of a war that will never be over until they are found and given decent burials? A few moments earlier, Janis was explaining to Ana how to make the perfect tortilla: slice those potatoes as thinly as possible, in case you’re wondering.
We’re back in the kitchen with Pedro Almodóvar and his beloved Spanish women, which is always a pleasure. Almodovar’s women are tough, maternal, vibrant, competent and ideally played by Penélope Cruz. Cruz, in turn, is always at her formidable best under Almodóvar’s direction. For Parallel Mothers, she plays a notable, wealthy fashion photographer, named for Janis Joplin by her hippie mother, who discovers she is pregnant at the age of 40. Her lover is married and conception was very much an accident, but she is thrilled. She will have the child on her own.
Ana (Milena Smit) is still a teenager, traumatized by her own pregnancy and her parents’ rejection. Her father has sent her away to Madrid to avoid scandal; her mother will abandon her to take the dream acting job she has craved since her own reluctant motherhood obliged her to forget her own ambitions. It will work out, you’ll see, Janis reassures her. And it does, at least initially. Both women fall in love with their babies, as women have done since time immemorial.
Almodóvar has always known how to deliver an entertaining cinematic ride, but his mature films plumb emotional depths none of the converts to his early films — Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for example — ever anticipated. Parallel Mothers is still definitely an Almodóvar film; it has its share of rainbow-hued costumes and stylistic winks to the audience that let us know we’re not looking at something exactly like real life.
A truly inspired emotional roller-coaster of a score by Alberto Iglesias runs through almost the entire film that would give any Bette Davis movie a run for its melodramatic money. There are a couple of bouts of alarmingly vigorous sex, an Almodóvar signature touch.
But it is also, profoundly and sincerely, about deep love and loss. Women lose children; children lose their parents’ love; whole villages of men were executed during the Spanish Civil War and are still mourned; the nation as a whole is scarred and diminished by what was done and the failure to acknowledge and atone for it. Lightness of touch is not a virtue usually associated with the exuberant Madrileño maestro, but he draws these themes — another set of parallels — together with gossamer delicacy.
He also delivers a wallop of an ending. No spoilers here, but the women work things out, as they usually do in an Almodóvar film. The families that are established at the end are not the same families we see at the beginning, but this assortment of flawed yet sympathetic characters has shaken down into new configurations that may not look much like conventional marriages, but seem to be working to everyone’s satisfaction, including ours. What a triumphant choice this was for the opening night of Europe’s oldest film festival. What a triumph, full stop.
Parallel Mothers opens in U.S. theaters December 24 via Sony Pictures Classics.