Spanish Film Icon Comes up with Another Winner

At the Movies

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From left: Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit star in “Parallel Mothers” by Almodovar. Photo Courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures

Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar continues to amaze with his latest effort, “Parallel Mothers,” a touching and brilliantly realized film that brings him back to the world of the hospital, a context he last explored in the great “Talk to Her” (2002). (This film, subtitled in Spanish, runs 123 minutes, and is rated “R.”)

Two women, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), are pregnant in a hospital room with their deliveries on the same parallel track. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis, a professional photographer is middle-aged, but she does not regret her pregnancy and is rather thrilled by the prospect. Her pregnancy comes about as a result of a one-night stand with a rugged academic Arturo (Israel Etejade). However, Ana, a callow teenager, struggles with the implications of this sudden change of life (we don’t know who the father is), and she longs for the support of her actor mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez Gijon), whose ambition to star in a new play on the road will keep her away from her vulnerable daughter.

After witnessing their ferocious, almost simultaneous births, level-headed Janis tries to encourage Ana in her new, unwanted role. Having bonded in their days chatting in hospital corridors and later after they have welcomed their babies, the two new mothers agree they will stay in touch.

The abandoned Ana begins to lean on Janis as they both learn the ways of newborns.  Janis adjusts without difficulty, but she has to leave her demanding high-fashion photography to take on more modest contract work. The bond with the more dependent youngster means that Janis eventually agrees to take Ana into her household, so and they can raise their children in tandem. Arturo comes in and out of Janis’s life but not in any romantic way, while Ana’s attempts to involve her mother in the raising of her newborn goes nowhere.

Ana’s awareness of who her baby’s father might be is moot since she had made love with several young men at the same time, while Janis has doubts about her child’s origins and looks to DNA tests to try to confirm the identity of her baby’s father. At this point, Almodovar story takes a sharp right turn, and the relationships shift radically for the rest of the picture. What does not change is the by-now firm relationship between the two women.

Almodovar has, for years, been known for his lavish use of color, especially in interior scenes with strong primary colors that often frame his gorgeous protagonists. That practice figured in his last film “Pain and Glory” (2019), and it is shown here, too, with vibrant hues, especially covering the scarlet-to-carmine spectrum, shown in the costuming, furnishings, and interior details (leaving aside a lush mint-green for the hospital scenes).

It doesn’t hurt that the director again has Penelope Cruz as his muse in this film. She is as effective as ever, playing a heartfelt, if practical, character who knows her own mind, a kind of natural, hard-headed feminist (and one who adores her child). As he often does, Almodovar veers awfully close to melodrama in “Mothers,” but Cruz helps him avert this by never being seen as other than grounded and real.

Almodovar is as comfortable with the actress as he is with her long-time male equivalent, Antonio Banderes. (last seen in his 2019 “Pain and Glory”). He handles just as well the young Smit, a lovely new discovery to include in his now vast panoply of Spanish screen actresses.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.