I am not religious, but I religiously see every single Pedro Almodóvar film as soon as it opens in theaters.
This time, as a native New Yorker based in Madrid, alone in the dark, watching this quieter-than-usual new film by the 71-year-old Spanish director, I couldn’t help let out a “hallelujah.”
Almodóvar gives us an earnest depiction of motherhood’s transformative power and the female communities that fuel and heal each other, independent of men.
The magazine Variety once described Almodóvar’s aesthetics as “Telemundo on peyote.” Although “Parallel Mothers” is neither camp nor comedy driven like his past films, what I liked most about it was its dignified atmosphere of domesticity — one that’s tightly wired and self-consciously serious like a telenovela should be and shot mostly in Madrid’s interiors where earthy colors play lead roles alongside the film’s blonder and ever-stunning 47-year-old award-winning lead actress Penélope Cruz.
Here, in her eighth movie playing one of Almodóvar’s classically strong and frowning Iberian ladies, Cruz has taken home this year’s Venice Film Festival award for best actress in the role of the professional photographer Janis.
Her character is the daughter of a drug-loving Spanish bohemian mom and a Venezuelan drug-dealing dad, who decides to have her lover’s baby on her own and then meets Ana, a posh teen who wasn’t looking to get pregnant when she was raped.
Though it appears the two hospital roomies have nothing in common other than their hospital gowns and due dates, their fate entwines them forever. Its exciting cast of bold actresses include the statuesque Rossy de Palma, transgender newcomer Daniela Santiago, the posh-faced Aitana Sánchez Gijón, and Almodóvar’s newest ingénue Milena Smit as Ana.
The director’s zany use of color throughout the film not only fuses with Cruz’s and the other actors’ moods and wardrobes but serves to lighten the atmosphere of this serious mattered film. It highlights the spiritual weight of motherhood against a bleak backdrop that still grieves the mass civilian murders and ditch burials of the Franco regime that ended when he died in 1975.
With a beautifully written script that manages to fuse the two distinct storylines, Almodóvar’s gutsy female characters symbolize the very life force that has kept his movies and Spain afloat despite the dark waters of the past.
Here are five more reasons not to miss this film:
The ‘We are all Feminists’ t-shirt cameo on Penélope
A sign of the times, the movie’s male characters are practically invisible even in a more traditional country like Spain.
It’s as if Almodóvar placed them in the storyline for the mere purpose of inseminating his leading ladies, having them then disappear like smoke. And nobody seems to miss them.
Watching Cruz’s character Janis, a gorgeous middle-aged fashion photographer mom stomping around Madrid in bell-bottoms, big-soled shoes, and low-cut cardigans, is as joyous to watch as any Fashion Week in NY.
The Manchego director seems to never ask that his lead actress laugh, albeit grin at life’s insanity.
In the kitchen scene where Cruz sports Christian Dior’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ t-shirt while teaching Ana (Milena Smit) how to cook a tortilla española for nutritional survival, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words stamped across Cruz’s chest never appeared so delicious.
The controversial movie poster of a lactating nipple
Like a modern take on the eye from the pyramid, the b&w “Parallel Mothers” movie poster of a lactating nipple that appears as if it is crying was taken down for nudity censorship purposes on Instagram a few months before its September 8 release in Spain.
The social network’s algorithm detected it on its creator Javier Jaén’s personal account and deleted it along with other fans’ attempts at posting it. But after receiving fierce social pressure in the name of art, Instagram recognized its mistake and allowed Jaén and other fans to repost the movie poster.
Almodóvar wrote in response: “Many thanks to all of you who have supported the Parallel Mothers’ poster, to those who have posted it more than once, to those who have debated the need for sanity when seeing a female nipple. You got the mind behind the algorithm that decides what is obscene and offensive to step back and allow the poster to circulate freely. You must be alert before the machines decide what we can and cannot do. An algorithm is not human. No matter how much information the algorithm has, it will never have a heart or common sense. Thanks to everyone again.”
That killer Eduardo Galeano quote
One of the best things about Almodóvar films is that he always likes to throw tributes to the authors and artists he admires. From Alice Munro in “Julieta” to Caetano Veloso in “Talk to Her” to Rosalia’s recent appearance in “Pain and Glory.”
In “Parallel Mothers,” he pays tribute to the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano by using a quote from his book Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World to add his film’s final message. A black screen cuts to the quote; “No hay historia muda. Por mucho que la quemen, por mucho que la rompan, por mucho que la mientan, la historia humana se niega a callarse la boca.” This translates to: “There is no silent history. However much they burn it, however much they smash it, however much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut up.” How’s that for a moralistic finale?
The coming-out party for Daniela Santiago
Almodóvar has either helped launch or given his seal of approval to the careers of many up and comers. In this film, Daniela Santiago gets a cameo fit for the queen that she is.
The Spanish bombshell born in Málaga and trans icon who stars in the HBO Series “Veneno,” and who’s been featured in ad campaigns with Roberto Cavalli and Desigual x Esteban Cortazar, shares a thrilling scene with Cruz’s character Janis as one of the photographer’s fashion subjects.
Like two cats at play, both Cruz and Santiago roll around the floor, giving it their todo for the photoshoot. “I hope to achieve many more things, to work with great directors and producers from the United States and throughout Latin America and continue helping my people,” Santiago told Paper magazine.
Almodóvar is on Cruz control with his favorite leading lady
There is undeniable magic between this director and actress that’s palpable in “Parallel Mothers,” their eighth collaboration together. Cruz’s first role with Almodóvar was in 1997 with “Live Flesh.” At the Venice Film Festival press conference, he said “very much admired” Cruz as an actress. “But what I want to say most is that it’s very important that we understand each other; we speak the same language,” he said. “I’m a very demanding director, and she gives me everything I ask her to give me. She’s very beautiful and comes out beautifully in a film, but at the same time, she’s very trusting. She trusts me completely, and that makes you very brave.”