In Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar finally gets around to making the film he said he would never make. Even so, having taken the difficult decision to confront the ubiquitous, malignant ghost of Franco still hovering over his country, he dangles the agonising spectre of almost 100,000 long-buried disappeared into our peripheral vision, avoiding full disclosure until the final twenty minutes of this glorious piece of movie making.
The storyline begins in a labour ward and the seeding of an unlikely friendship between two single mothers, forty-something Janis (Penélope Cruz) and wide-eyed teenager Ana (Milena Smit). Their shared birthing experience extends into the anxiety of seeing their newborn daughters whisked away to the hospital’s observation unit. It will slowly develop into something infinitely more challenging.
Before long, with an au pair and a housekeeper installed at home, Janis returns to her fashion photographer lifestyle. Meanwhile Ana and her baby have no choice but to move back in with with her temperamental actress mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who repeatedly puts career before family.
But for all the high gloss of her profession, Janis is a troubled soul, beset, like so many of her compatriots, with the dark unsolved mystery of a lost loved one, her great-grandfather Antonio. She is assigned to photograph an eminent anthropologist Arturo (a performance of quiet strength by Israel Elejalde), who is working with a team of archaeologists formed under Spain’s Historical Memory Law. Their task is to locate bodies, long buried in concealed mass graves. Certain that Antonio is one of them, Janis has put in a formal request for information, which will be overseen by Arturo.
That much Almodòvar gives us early on in proceedings before gently steering into the complex blossoming love between two women of different generations, whose respective grasps on past and present say much about the ongoing political polemic in modern day Spain. But, always the master of visual storytelling, he delivers the gravity of his core subject matter gift-wrapped in heart-stopping locations and glorious fondant colours – cobalt blue, vivid turquoise, coral pink and red, red, red.
Cruz embodies Janis’s vibrancy and life-enhancing guiding presence with a humanity and sensual luminosity that is simply irresistible. But she can switch emotions in an instant. When confronted with a terrible personal dilemma, it is impossible not to experience her torment in concealing it from the young woman who has fallen in love with her.
Smit provides the perfect foil, reed thin, uncertain, her heart filled with confused emotions, her short life a mess of parental conflict and sexual exploitation.
And then, finally, we come to it. As one door softly closes, another opens. It’s a door that Janis, her best friend Elena (the wonderful Rossy de Palma, another Almodóvar regular) and their families will walk through together.
At that point, the director’s poetic vision reveals the full, tragic beauty of his parallel film. The final moments are sheer genius, uniting tortured families with their past in a visual image that is shocking, sobering and utterly right.
Parallel Mothers is on general release.