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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Janice is a photographer in Madrid, the kind of middle class, liberal type who wears “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirts. After an affair with a married archaeologist (Israel Elejalde’s Arturo), she gives birth to a girl she names Cecilia. Her roommate in the hospital is a forlorn-looking teenager named Ana (Milena Smit). Both pregnancies were unplanned – Janice doesn’t regret it, Ana does. It’s the starting point for a companionship that grows into something more profound, after Janice discovers a secret about their two children that could only lead to devastating consequences. Together both women don’t only cross paths, they fold into each other, in a way that directly contradicts Almodóvar’s chosen title for the film.
Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is too distracted with her acting career to really fulfil any duty of care. So it’s instead Janice and Ana who share the frame together. When they sit opposite each other, the curves of their profiles are gracefully matched to look like an Almodóvarian Rubin’s vase illusion. Smit is vulnerable, but not entirely weak, in a way that Cruz seizes upon with a kind of forceful, empathetic instinct. Janice is far from saintly, but Cruz is so effusive and open in her approach that she seems to overflow with love – for Ana, for Cecilia, even for the baby’s father. It’s chaotic, at times, but it’s pure.
This is the first film in which the filmmaker has overtly tackled the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Janice initially approaches Arturo for his help in excavating a grave containing 10 bodies, all early victims of the Franco regime. Among them is her great-grandfather. Almodóvar closes his film with a quote from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth.”
Parallel Mothers brings a new sense of depth to Almodóvar’s gallery of fearless women – suggesting that their strength is not always by choice. Women have always had to pick themselves up out of the ashes of history, and find a way to carry on.