The title Parallel Mothers could apply to a number of films by prolific Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, who has long been fascinated by the intertwined lives of women. His latest study in female interiority refers as much to the ghosts of parents past and family history as it does living mothers, but it primarily centers around Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who bond as roommates in a maternity ward. Both are single mothers in physical pain, but their circumstances are tremendously different. Janis is a confident middle-aged photographer who didn’t expect to bear a child as a result of an affair, but has welcomed the development, while Ana is a young woman in crisis, unloved by her parents and a survivor of assault. 

Each woman is defined in part by a fractured relationship with a mother. Janis was the child of a free spirit who named her after Janis Joplin and who, like that musician, died of an overdose at 27. Ana’s mother masks an ill-mannered heart with an elegant and refined presence, abandoning her daughter in favor of a late-blooming career as a stage actress. She even plays roles that hit a little too close to home, like the despondent Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

From Parallel Mothers

Time passes, and the two collide again after Ana loses her child to SIDS. Janis takes her on as a live-in nanny, but something has begun to feel off to her about her child. Secrets fester as Janis and Ana’s relationship thickens and intensifies, with the film evolving into a beguilingly uncanny thriller. After the more contemplative autofiction of Pain and Glory, Parallel Mothers is a return to Almodóvar’s familiar sandbox of applying a tender touch to pulp and genre tropes. With shades of Brian De Palma, he even employs a nanny cam to inventive ends.

The tension between Janis and Ana might be emotional and sexual at heart, but there’s a historical rift as well. Janis is the child of a Republican stronghold from the time of the Spanish Civil War, and is all too aware of the hidden mass graves throughout the countryside. In contrast, Ana is disconnected from the past, and the daughter of the fascist upper class. Almodóvar has become such an established brand and an icon of cinematic queerness that the sociopolitical context he emerged from is often forgotten. But it’s impossible to separate the thorny sexuality or vibrant color in his films from post-Franco Spain’s explosion of cultural and personal expression. No nation is ever free of its genealogical trauma. The cotton swab of a DNA test is a double-edged sword in Parallel Mothers — it both cuts away the veil from uncomfortable secrets, but is also a scientific tool that connects Janis to the bodies of long-lost family members. Almodóvar reminds us that the sins and struggles of our mothers are never washed away.

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Parallel Mothers is now playing in select theaters.

Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and co-host of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema. Her work has appeared in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, the Outline, Bandcamp Daily, Observer, and...