Resilient women, absent men, memory, family, trauma, grace—somehow filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar revisits every one of these ideas to one degree or another in each film he makes.
Parallel Mothers, the auteur’s latest, hits all those notes. But the song is never the same.
In this case, Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) meet in the maternity ward. Both are about to become single mothers, both pregnancies unplanned. Janis, a career woman who’d thought her time had passed, is elated. Ana, a teen with her own parent problems, is terrified.
The two share a room, deliver on the same day, and bond over the blessing of their first daughters. Life, of course, takes the women and their babies in unexpected directions but it is the bond that the film celebrates.
Almodóvar’s vibrant tone creates an atmosphere where anything could happen. Parallel Mothers could turn on a dime and become a murder mystery (notes of Hitchcock in that score), political allegory (a radiant backstory full of non-actors begs for your attention), or even a comedy.
Instead, it takes shape as a messy family drama, one so full of twists it recalls the filmmaker’s 1988 breakout Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Plot turns certainly suggest one of his raucous, over-the-top comedies, but Parallel Mothers is poignant in its drama.
The shocks and surprises are handled with sincerity by the cast, who imbue the film with an intimacy that grounds it. Cruz— Almodóvar’s go-to for a transcendent woman—commands the screen, an empathetic central figure even when Janis’s choices are morally muddy.
Smit cuts a curious and melancholy figure, a perfect mix to suit Ana, a woman still discovering who she is. Her enigmatic presence is balanced by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón as an entirely different kind of mother. The three women orbit each other, the men in their lives conspicuously absent.
It’s the absence, among other things, that gives Parallel Mothers its power. As complicated and showy as the dramatic twists are, it’s the backstory of Spain’s Civil War—the longing, the absence of fathers and husbands—that haunts the film.
It’s one of Almodóvar’s most tender films, and one of Cruz’s very finest performances. And though both always play well together, they have again found something new and remarkable to say.
Pedro Almodovar brings his two most marked filmmaking styles – the one submerged in the world of women (Volver, for instance), the later of a more Hitchockian note (The Skin I Live In) – and pulls them together in his latest effort, Julieta.
The titular heroine, played at different ages by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, has a shameful secret – or two. As the film opens, Julieta (Suárez) is packing to leave Madrid for Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But a chance encounter with a childhood friend of her daughter’s convinces Julieta to drop Lorenzo and stay in Madrid, moving instead to the old building where she’d lived for years with her daughter.
We then switch to the story of the younger Julieta (Ugarte), and Almodovar gets all Strangers on a Train with us – even to the point of eventually mentioning the novels of Patricia Highsmith, writer at the core of that Hitchcock classic.
Suárez capably maneuvers Julieta’s emotional landscape. She’s a woman pretending to be fine, keeping her true nature from those around her and attempting to hide it from herself. The performance is haunted, edged with remorse.
Ugarte stumbles, though. It doesn’t help that she and Suárez look so little alike, or that the flashback storyline is designed to be a thriller – an ill-fitting choice for the material.
Almodovar built the screenplay on three inter-connected shorts by Canadian writer Alice Munro, layering her words with an urgent score, suggesting dangerous thrills, and dialog-heavy close ups that feel more like daytime drama.
For all the clashing colors, discordant images and creepy housekeepers, Hitchcock and Munro just don’t fit together well.
Munro’s writing tends to lull you with quite unveilings. Julieta may be Almodovar’s attempt to spice that up by way of homage, score and framing, but it feels like a trick. His direction leads us to believe we’re watching some thriller wrought with dangerous secrets. We are not. This chicanery undercuts the power of Munro’s meditation on guilt while it all but guarantees the dissatisfaction of a misled audience.
The final result, though often gorgeous and compelling, is a bit of thematic chaos that doesn’t work.
!Dios mio! There are so many exceptional Spanish language horror films, it was hard to choose just 5 – so we didn’t! Whether it’s a Mexican director working in Spain, a Cuban zombiepocalypse, or ghosts, zombies, mad doctors or madder clowns, we have you covered with our fuzzy math salute to el cine de los muertos.
6. Juan of the Dead (2011)
By 2011, finding a zombie film with something new to say was pretty difficult, but writer/director/Cuban Alejandro Bruges managed to do just that with his bloody political satire Juan of the Dead.
First, what a kick ass title. Honestly, that’s a lot to live up to, begging the comparison of Dawn’s scathing social commentary and Shaun’s ingenious wit. Juan more than survives this comparison.
Breathtakingly and unapologetically Cuban, the film shadows Juan and his pals as they reconfigure their longtime survival instincts to make the most of Cuba’s zombie infestation. It’s a whole new approach to the zombiepocalypse and it’s entirely entertaining.
5. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone unravels a spectral mystery during Spain’s civil war. The son of a fallen comrade finds himself in an isolated orphanage that has its own troubles to deal with, now that the war is coming to a close and the facility’s staff sympathized with the wrong side. That leaves few resources to help him with a bully, a sadistic handyman, or the ghost of a little boy he keeps seeing.
Backbone is a slow burn as interested in atmosphere and character development as it is in the tragedy of a generation of war orphans. This is ripe ground for a haunted tale, and del Toro’s achievement is both contextually beautiful – war, ghost stories, religion and communism being equally incomprehensible to a pack of lonely boys – and elegantly filmed.
Touching, political, brutal, savvy, and deeply spooky, Backbone separated del Toro from the pack of horror filmmakers and predicted his potential as a director of substance.
4. The Skin I Live In (2011)
In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.
The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.
Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.
3. [Rec] (2007)
Found footage horror at its best, [Rec] shares one cameraman’s film of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. Bad, bad things will happen.
The squad gets a call from an urban apartment building where one elderly tenant keeps screaming. No sooner do the paramedics and news crew realize they’ve stepped into a dangerous situation than the building is sealed off and power is cut. Suddenly we’re trapped in the dark inside a building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.
The found footage approach never feels tired – at first, he’s documenting his story, then he’s using the only clear view in the darkened building. The point of view allows [Rec] a lean, mean funhouse experience.
2. The Last Circus (2010)
Who’s in the mood for something weird?
Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia offers The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.
Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.
Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.
The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.
1. The Orphanage (2007)
Sometimes a throwback is the most refreshing kind of film. Spain’s The Orphanage offers just that fresh breath with a haunted house tale that manages to be familiar and surprising and, most importantly, spooky.
Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son, Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.
One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.
A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.