Tag Archives: Spanish language films

All About Two Mothers

Parallel Mothers

by Hope Madden

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.

Strangers on a Trainwreck


by Hope Madden

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.