This review contains minor spoilers.
A popular concept today is that of the “family you choose” – the notion that if your own family is cruel or rejecting in any way, you can consciously select the people you want to build a life with. . I love and approve of this concept, but the power of DNA is also undeniable. This is one of the many reasons why genealogy has become such a popular pastime and why those “you’re NOT the father!” Maury Povich episodes have dominated the airwaves for so many years. In some ways, our DNA is our destiny.
Chez Pedro Almodovar Parallel mothersour hero, Janis (Penélope Cruz) has a strong bond with a grandfather she has never met. He was killed by Franco’s brutal regime and rests in a mass grave near his childhood village in Spain. At the start of the film, Janis, who is a high-end magazine photographer (and dresses in a series of enviable baggy sweaters), does a shoot with an archaeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). After the shooting, they go out for a drink and she asks if he would be able to dig the grave, which the village has been looking forward to so they can give their deceased loved ones a proper burial. He explains that there is a process, that such a project must be approved by a board of directors, it can take years. But he agrees to help her. Meanwhile, the chemistry between them is undeniable. They sleep together and she becomes pregnant.
Far from being dismayed by this turn of events, Janis is happy. She is at that age when pregnancy is not planned, or even probable. She sees this baby as a blessing even though Arturo, who is married to a woman with cancer, tries to talk her out of having it. She is content to raise the baby alone.
At the hospital, Janis meets a pregnant teenager named Ana (Milena Smit) who is in a very different situation. Her mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is a busy actress who rushes into the hospital room, seemingly uninterested and mildly discouraged by her daughter’s pregnancy. Ana’s father, we learn, imposed her on her mother when he discovered that his daughter was pregnant. So there is a lot of shame attached to the birth of this child. (We later find out about the circumstances of Ana’s pregnancy, making her parents’ behavior all the more gruesome.)
Janis immediately takes Ana under her wing. We can see right away that Janis will be an excellent mother. She has a natural warmth and nurturing spirit that attracts Ana. Their babies are born within hours of each other and they agree to keep in touch.
When Arturo meets his new daughter, however, he is rebuffed. He feels no blood connection to the child, he insists that the child does not look like him or Janis. But Janis says the baby looks like her great-uncle. She is so furious with Arturo’s reaction that they break up.
Meanwhile, Janis goes on with her life. She raises her baby, happy. She fires her iPhone-distracted nanny, then stumbles upon Ana, who has left her mother’s house and now works in a cafe. (She also cut her hair and dyed it a punk bleach blonde.) Janis asks Ana to serve as her nanny/housekeeper and Ana agrees. The two women approach each other.
Ana and Janis are, of course, the parallel mothers of the film’s title, but this manifests itself in different ways. Ana and Janis are themselves mothers of little girls. And Janis becomes a kind of mother figure for Ana, and much more. When she first invites her to her apartment, Janis teaches Ana how to properly prepare a Spanish potato omelet, peeling the potatoes just right. soplunging them into the oil in a large frying pan. It’s made with precision and love, like the transmission of a family recipe. Both actresses are wonderful here and Cruz in particular continues to bring out the best in Almodóvar and vice versa.
The domestic bliss Janis and Ana are creating is disrupted when Arturo returns, telling Janis that the excavation project is moving forward.
There are more twists in Parallel mothers which I will not reveal but the film is fascinating. We are bound by our past, by personal and shared tragedy, explains Almodóvar, but also by the new bonds we forge, the ancestral traditions we share, and yes, by the families we choose.
Parallel mothers opens this Friday at the Charles.