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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Parallel Mothers’ – a Pedro Almodovar-Penelope Cruz movie worth seeing

Scene from "Parallel Mothers"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

You don’t need a cheek swab to determine the lineage of “Parallel Mothers.”

It is pure Pedro Almodovar – bold, brilliant and, on occasion, exuberantly bonkers.

Two mothers-to-be share a room in a Madrid maternity ward. One is Janis (Penelope Cruz), a 40-ish high-end professional photographer who’s ecstatic to be – finally – welcoming her first child. The other is Ana (Milena Smit), a waifish teenager who’s anything but happy about having a baby. About the only thing the pair have in common is, in neither case is the father present.

“Parallel Mothers” movie poster

Still, they bond, have their baby daughters within hours of each other and seemingly go their separate ways. But remember the title. These mothers don’t merely parallel each other; they are on a kind of maternal collision course, one that provides a soap opera season’s worth of outlandish twists and turns.

“Parallel Mothers” is a lot like an escaped Telemundo series that somehow ended up in Almodovar’s ingenius hands. Overloaded as it is with melodrama and incident, the movie nonetheless has some serious things on its mind, most notably the inescapable shadow of the Spanish Civil War. This theme is introduced almost immediately when Janis photographs a celebrated forensic anthropologist (Israel Elejalde) and asks him about excavating a mass grave in her hometown. In it are the remains of her great-grandfather and nine other Loyalist partisans murdered by Franco’s fascists.

A scene from “Parallel Mothers”

He agrees and then pretty much drops out of the picture (except as one of those absentee fathers). So, too, does Janis’s request, which returns near the movie’s end to remind us that we are all, as Beckett said, born astride the grave. That history itself is a kind of mass grave.

Still, the film is far more affirmation than downer. Shot in Almodovar’s trademark jelly-bean color scheme and drenched in his uniquely joyful humanity, “Parallel Mothers” is unfailingly entertaining. And that is due almost as much to its star as it is to the director.

This is Cruz’s seventh collaboration with Almodovar, and her performance is astonishing in both its precision and effortlessness. She’s been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and if she wins, it would be richly deserved. In her hands, even a task as mundane as peeling potatoes takes on a bright, almost miraculous glow.

See the movie and you’ll know what I mean.

“Parallel Mothers” is in Spanish with English subtitles. It is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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