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Arts & Culture

Pedro Almodóvar's film 'Parallel Mothers' mixes melodrama and history

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Sony Pictures Classics
Ana (Milena Smit) and Janis (Penelope Cruz) are single mothers who meet in a maternity in Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers."

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"Parallel Mothers" opens in cinemas today. The film may not have been Spain’s choice for its entry into this year’s International Film Oscar race but it’s one of the better movies from last year.

Two single mothers, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), meet in a maternity ward. Janis is having a late in life, unplanned pregnancy that she's embracing and the younger Ana regrets her accidental pregnancy. Although strangers, the two women are brought together by fate. But their tangled relationship is only one layer in Almodóvar's richly rewarding new film.

Although I miss the wackiness and absurd energy of his earlier films such as "Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down," I am also growing increasingly fond of this more mature and contemplative Almodóvar.

His films often exist in a land of Douglas Sirk melodramas and women’s pictures. These were films from the 40s and 50s that focused on strong female characters struggling through bad marriages, troubled romances, or just a bad hand fate dealt them. Almodóvar initially embraced the melodrama of those films with exuberant glee as he spun them into delicious sex comedies. Now he dives into the melodrama with a more nuanced sense of compassion and increased emotional complexity.

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What is new in this film is his use of history as a backdrop for the personal tale of the two women. What links the two narratives is a question of DNA and familial ties in both the present and the past. Cruz’s Janis is a photographer who is also pushing to excavate the unmarked graves of people killed under Franco’s brutal regime so that families can find closure about missing relatives. Uncovering the truth and detailing family history are at the core of the film.

As with all of Almodóvar's film you can expect great performances, excellent craftsmanship, and many unexpected twists and turns.