In geometry, parallel lines don’t have to be identical. One can be thick, one can be thin. One can be short, one can be tall. The requirement isn’t that they be mirror images of each other. It’s that they never intersect.
Visually, Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are “parallel mothers” in Pedro Almodóvar‘s film of the same name. Their beds are parallel to each other when they share a hospital room on the day they both give birth to their daughters – Cecilia (Janis’ baby) and Anita (Ana’s baby). Their situations are parallel in other ways, too. Both women are single moms, and, before getting discharged, they make sure to exchange phone numbers. But if Janis and Ana were “parallel mothers” they would go back to living separate lives. Instead, their lives grow more and more intertwined, for reasons both outside their control and of their own choosing, and it’s because they don’t stay “parallel mothers” that conflicts emerge.
Almodóvar is a director who has worked in many genres. One of the things that stands out about Parallel Mothers is the restraint he shows, in not letting the film tip towards melodrama or thriller. It would’ve been easy to do. Parallel Mothers deals with some highly emotional and difficult moral decisions – think soap opera territory – and since thrillers and melodramas are both in Almodóvar’s wheelhouse, it always feels possible that the film could veer in that direction and go full Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk. Frequent Almodóvar collaborator and production designer, Antxón Gómez, certainly provides his usual, colorful sets (never have I spent more time envying the chairs in a movie) and whenever Almodóvar has Janis be swallowed by darkness it couldn’t feel more ominous.
Instead Almodóvar treats these would-be hysterical situations with as much calm as possible, the result being less cat fights, and more grounded scenes. Another thing that stands out about Parallel Mothers is how it’s structured. When the film begins, Janis is trying to get a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War excavated. When the baby is born, that storyline gets put on the backburner, yet instead of forgetting it altogether, the film brings it up again at the end, so Parallel Mothers begins and ends with what, in any other film would be the b-story. It’s almost like the film is tricking viewers into taking their medicine by forcing them to grapple with history, but in truth Almodóvar could’ve made the whole film about the dig and it would’ve been just as fascinating, if different.
There are also a good number of time jumps, including Janis going from having sex to being fully pregnant, in a snap. This isn’t always a bad thing (the example mentioned is fine), but later this technique sometimes feels like the movie letting itself out of having to show certain conversations.
Cruz’s character is complicated, and her choices won’t always go over well, yet it’s the weight of these decisions that Cruz really sells and makes her performance heart-wrenching.
Parallel Mothers is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.