I don’t regret it.
Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) find themselves as roommates in a Madrid maternity ward—two single women about to give birth to their first child. The former is a successful photographer who conceived while having an affair with a married man (Israel Elejalde‘s Arturo). The latter is a teenager, the father and circumstances surrounding her pregnancy not yet explained. Ana is trepidatious about the whole ordeal for obvious reasons while Janis is looking forward to the experience, her maternal instincts already kicking in as a protector for her new friend. They arrive together, give birth on the same day, and both find themselves waiting a bit longer before bringing their daughters home due to an additional yet non-threatening observation period. They agree to stay in touch.
This is the superficial set-up to Pedro Almodóvar‘s latest film Madres paralelas [Parallel Mothers]. I say that because there’s a lot more happening underneath the surface—layers I can’t fully grasp having zero knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. Seen by many as a “dress rehearsal” for World War II, the conflict saw an insurrection by a fascist junta led by Francisco Franco that ultimately overthrew the left-leaning Republican government. It was a terrible tragedy leading to countless deaths of which over a hundred-thousand victims have yet to be found. Janis’ great-grandfather was one of those bodies left in an unmarked grave, his whereabouts only known because someone not yet dead escaped from the dirt to tell their village what happened. Exhumation is obviously a hot button topic.
That’s where Arturo comes in. A forensic anthropologist being photographed by Janis for a magazine article, he is the perfect person to ask about what might be done. Despite the affair, the baby, and a complicated relationship due to his wife having cancer, the two can never be fully detached because of the years-long process of digging up this grave. And this is also where Ana fits in. Well, not so much her as the family from which she comes. Never wanting for money (although the reasons are never overtly explained), her parents (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón‘s posh actress hopeful Teresa and her never present ex-husband) are very obviously of a class and political leaning that would have backed Franco. Does that matter? Maybe not. It’s not inconsequential, though.
To someone affected by the ramifications, it probably means everything. There’s a scene where Ana parrots something her father told her about “not dwelling on the past” when it comes to the grave (a textbook phrase spoken by those who side with people that committed heinous crimes so as not to confront them). It sends Janis off, for good reason, into an impassioned lesson about what the young woman should no longer be able to hide from. She has already been teaching Ana how to cook and look after a house (things Teresa looks down upon as being below her station), so the truth about what happened almost a century prior is surely necessary. But it also forces Janis to look inward at an injustice of her own.
I won’t say it since Almodóvar has set his story’s construction up in a way that demands you go for the ride knowing as little as possible. Never one to shy from melodrama, his main plot of Janis and Ana becoming intertwined by their pregnancies quickly spirals into soap opera strokes of fate thanks to mistaken identity, shocking tragedy, and heightened sexuality. Questions about what it means to be a mother rise as priorities and secrets risk the chance of destroying love before it can begin flourishing. Mistakes are made. Regret is in surplus. And the suspense grows due to our knowing that the truth must come out eventually. The question is thus a matter of forgiveness and realizing that some bonds are too precious to willfully deny.
Almodóvar doesn’t exploit the potential fireworks of this complex scenario. He grounds things in authentic emotion by letting these two women respond to impossible revelations with all the rage and confusion possible before giving them the room to process and reconsider. Parallel Mothers could have gone in so many directions with its odd couple dynamic separated by two decades of life. It could have easily turned to a revenge thriller or dramatic battle, but both of those choices would have distracted from the theme of ancestry, confronting the past, and accepting responsibility. We need Janis and Ana to be the cooler heads—the ones who look at a horrible situation and understand the other’s position with empathy and compassion. Without that level of comprehension, the message falls flat.
It doesn’t hurt that you have Cruz at the top of her game. Her Janis is put through the wringer emotionally with connections to past (the exhumation) and future (her daughter) alternating between clear focus and muddy uncertainty. She’s a survivor who weighs her options when presented with a cruel choice—one she might not choose correctly at first. But we recognize the toll it takes along her gradual path towards painful redemption brought about by fate. (Who knew changing your phone number could be the reason everyone finds you?) She and Smit (who’s equally captivating in her youthful struggle to escape the shadow of her privileged upbringing) captivate with honesty in a way that’s almost daring considering cinema’s penchant for often going too far. Their truth inspires.
 Penélope Cruz as Janis, Milena Smit as Ana in PARALLEL MOTHERS. © El Deseo, photo by Iglesias Más. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
 Milena Smit as Ana, Penélope Cruz as Janis in PARALLEL MOTHERS. © El Deseo, photo by Iglesias Más. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
 Rossy de Palma as Elena, Penélope Cruz as Janis in PARALLEL MOTHERS. © El Deseo, photo by Iglesias Más. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.