Review: ‘Parallel Mothers,’ starring Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano

January 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Milena Smit, Penélope Cruz and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón in “Parallel Mothers” (Photo by Iglesias Más/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Parallel Mothers”

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Madrid, Spain, from 2016 to 2019, the dramatic film “Parallel Mothers” features an all-Hispanic cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two single mothers (one middle-aged and one teenage) and the teenager’s mother find their lives intertwined and affected by secrets and lies.

Culture Audience: “Parallel Mothers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, star Penélope Cruz and well-acted movies that explore the highs and lows of family histories.

Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit in “Parallel Mothers” (Photo by Iglesias Más/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Parallel Mothers” is more than a drama about the relationship between two single mothers. On a much broader level, it’s about how secrets can be damaging to families. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Parallel Mothers” is one of his most emotionally moving and effective movies in his illustrious filmography. “Parallel Mothers” had its world premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “Parallel Mothers” star Penélope Cruz won the Volpi Prize for Best Actress. The movie’s North American premiere was at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

“Parallel Mothers” (which takes place from 2016 to 2019) begins and ends with a very personal family quest by a Madrid-based photographer named Maria Janis Martinez Moreno, also known as Janis (played by Cruz), who is trying to find the anonymous mass grave where her great-grandfather was buried, after he was murdered in the Spanish Civil War. Janis, who is 39 when this story begins, comes up against a lot bureaucratic stonewalling from government officials who seem to want to erase this shameful part of Spanish history where thousands of murdered people were buried in unmarked graves without notifying the dead people’s family members. It’s important for Janis and her family to give her great-grandfather’s body a proper burial, according to their Catholic traditions.

The only details that Janis knows about the grave are from what her grandmother told her: It’s an unmarked grave, where 10 men were buried. Janis’ grandmother gave her the names of the other men who are said to be buried in the same grave. Janis’ great-grandfather was not in the military during the Spanis Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. He was a teacher and a photographer, who went missing during the war. The family got the news that he was murdered, but his body was never found.

During her search for this grave, Janis ends up doing a studio photo session with a forensic entomologist named Arturo (played Israel Elejalde), who works for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. It’s a group that decides its projects years in advance, and it has the authority to decide which unmarked graves can be excavated. Janis asks Arturo what he can do to help her start the process to excavate a grave that she’s fairly certain is where her great-grandfather is buried. Arturo says he can talk to his management supervisors about this issue.

There’s some sexual attraction between Janis and Arturo. Not long after this photo session, they begin having an affair. Although Janis is completely single, Arturo is not. He’s up front in telling Janis that he’s married, but he and his wife are having marital problems. The movie later has some back-and-forth drama over whether or not Arturo and his wife (who is never seen in the film) will break up or not.

Soon after Janis and Arturo begin their affair, Janis unexpectedly gets pregnant. Janis is at an age when she thought she would never have children, so she’s elated by this unplanned pregnancy. Arturo is not. In fact, he questions if he’s the father of the child and asks Janis to consider having an abortion.

Janis is so insulted that she breaks up with Arturo and tells him she wants to raise the child without any financial help from him. Janis also tells Arturo that she won’t have a paternity test done for the child, and that she doesn’t Arturo in the child’s life. Arturo accepts this decision, but he seems hurt that Janis wants to completely cut him out of her life. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Janis and Arturo aren’t completely out of each other’s lives after she gives birth to their child.

When it comes time for Janis to give birth, she checks into a maternity ward at a local hospital. Janis knows that her baby will be a girl and already has decided that her daughter’s name will be Cecilia. Janis’ roommate is another single, expectant mother who’s about to give birth to her first child that was the result of an unplanned pregnancy.

Janis is sharing a room with Ana Manso (played by Milena Smit), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Unlike Janis, Ana is not excited to be a mother. Ana is terrified and reluctant about parenthood. Ana doesn’t feel that she’s ready for this big change in her life. Ana also tells Janis that she regrets getting pregnant, while Janis tries to get Ana to think about the positive benefits of being a parent.

Janis has her somewhat-comical best friend Elena (played by Rossy de Palma) as a support system during this pregnancy. Ana is under the care of her divorced and domineering mother Teresa (played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who greatly disapproves that Ana is going to be an unwed, teenage mother. Teresa thinks that Ana is headed down the wrong path in life, and she frequently berates Ana about it.

Teresa is a busy actress who often has to travel for her job. She does a lot of work on plays that tour. It’s not stated what Teresa’s ex-husband Alex (Ana’s father) does for a living, but he makes enough money to give financial support to Ana and Teresa. During Ana’s stay in the hospital, Ana says to Teresa that Teresa should tell Alex that he needs to increase his child-support payments, now that Ana is about to become a mother who is still underage.

Despite their very different attitudes about their impending motherhoods, Ana and Janis become fast friends in the maternity ward. Their bond becomes stronger when they both end up giving birth to daughters on the same day. Ana names her daughter Anita. Ana is overwhelmed by being a new mother, but she loves Anita and wants to do what’s best for her. Janis is also a doting mother to Cecilia.

The friendship between Ana and Janis continues after they both leave the hospital. When Ana’s mother Teresa temporarily goes away because of a job in a play, she thinks it’s a good idea for Ana to stay with Janis, who has plenty of room in her home. Janis also has a comfortable living situation because she has a nanny and a housekeeper to help.

Janis and Ana become closer and eventually confide some secrets to each other. Ana, who is a self-admitted “wild child,” tells Janis how she really got pregnant. Janis tells Ana that Janis’ seemingly upstanding family has some shady history: Janis’ father was a Colombian drug dealer. As a sign that Ana wants to start a new life and possibly appear to be more mature, Ana cuts her hair short and dyes it gray.

Ana and Janis initially bond over being two mothers of two daughters who share the same birthday. Their friendship turns into a more intimate relationship when Janis and Ana become lovers while they live together. They do not put a label on their sexuality. Janis has told Ana about Arturo from the beginning. It should come as no surprise when Arturo seems to want to come back into Janis’ life, Ana gets very jealous.

But the real test of the relationship between Ana and Janis is when Janis finds out a shocking secret that she knows could very likely ruin her relationship with Ana if Janis tells Ana. Much of the suspense in “Parallel Mothers” is about whether or not Janis will tell anyone this secret. And if she does, what will happen?

During all of this drama, Janis still has not lost sight of looking for her great-grandfather’s grave. Janis learns more about her family history from her Aunt Brígida (played by Julieta Serrano), who keeps a lot of the family’s ancestral mementos and records. One of the most emotionally moving aspects of “Parallel Mothers” is showing how the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath resulted in thousands of missing people who were presumed murdered but whose families never got proper closure over these disappearances. These disappearances and the untold number of unmarked graves have left an immeasurably sad impact on families and on Spain as a country.

“Parallel Mothers” is not a political film that points fingers at the right-wing Nationalists who won the war, or at Francisco Franco’s regime that ruled Spain until Franco’s death in 1975. Instead, the movie brilliantly weaves the stories of Janis, Ana and Teresa together as examples of what can happen when dishonesty, love and pride have long-term effects on relationships. And what Almodóvar does so well, in very nuanced ways, is show that the “Parallel Mothers” is also about another mother—a mother country called Spain and the effects of dishonesty, love and pride on this mother.

All of the cast members do commendable jobs in their roles, but Cruz is a clear standout because of how authentically she expresses the range of emotions that her Janis character goes through in this story. Simply put: Cruz gives one of her best performances in “Parallel Mothers,” which has a knockout ending that will stay with viewers long after seeing the movie. Considering the movie’s subject matter and Janis’ secret, “Parallel Mothers” could have easily devolved into into a mawkish soap opera. But under Almodóvar’s artistic and thoughtful guidance, “Parallel Mothers” makes an impactful statement about trying to heal from emotional scars, whether they are from personal battles or national wars.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Parallel Mothers” in select U.S. cinemas on December 24, 2021.