(Written by Allison Brown)
The Pedro Almodóvar name comes with a weighty subtext I was unfamiliar with going into his new film, Parallel Mothers. I was told that red is visually omnipresent (no surprise from the poster design), and to expect much melodrama. In this respect, I can confirm Almodóvar delivered what one would anticipate from his style. I enjoyed his exploration of imperfect mothers and how three generations of females have been affected by the women who raised (or chose not to raise) them. Although I do not regret watching Parallel Mothers, I am disappointed by the built-up hype. I found the plot to be incredibly predictable, so much so that I knew exactly what was going to happen the entire film before it played out. In this respect, it feels like the weakest of the Sony catalogue I have seen this year.
As an Art Director myself, I could not help but notice the meticulous craft of color in each and every scene. Bright pastels contrast with an aggressive red that is somehow not overbearing. I may have been more conscious of it due to my peers’ warning, but there is so much vibrant red in each and every scene, from the wardrobe, to cell phone cases, to pills, down to written text on a page. The color somehow intensifies to match the on-screen character emotions, which was a pleasure to behold.
The score is equally strong. Heavy music swells at each notable moment in the plot. The success in crafting the soundtrack really helped me to be more engaged than I would have been without it. I loved the fluttering, cheesy fairy-tale like instrumentals whenever romance was in the air. At times the narrative felt very slow, and this really served to highlight important scenes. The sound becomes especially vital to distinguish time settings. Frequently, I found the flashbacks hard to follow, as they were loosely defined. A fade to black with a character isolated served to at least bookend most scenes. This helped clarify any break in which the visual device was utilized. However, by the third time it appeared, it began to come off cheesy. Despite its generally attractive visuals and soaring soundtrack, Parallel Mothers was let down by almost everything else.
I have seen many praise Milena Smit’s performance as Ana, some going so far as to call it awards worthy. I am not sure where the disparity lies, but I highly disagree. Perhaps I am not grasping Almodóvar’s style, but swaths of Ana’s dialogue are exaggerated to a laughable level. When she discovers the prime secret of the plot, it feels as if she just continues to repeat the obvious in an unnatural robotic way. Instead of allowing the audience to read between the lines, everything is spoon-fed in the plainest manner possible. It is over-explained as if Almodóvar is pandering to an audience of children. Maybe Almodóvar is trying to play with a telenovela style of scripting, but I really was not a fan. Additionally, I just found it hard to connect with Ana. Even when sharing deeply concerning trauma, her emotions felt forced and disingenuous. Veteran Penélope Cruz definitely made up for this disparity and was a joy to watch as Janis. Their chemistry onscreen however, even as believable friends, was lacking.
My biggest gripe with the film is a b-plot that is only really explored in Parallel Mother’s final moments. Janis hires Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who is an archaeologist, to dig up an unmarked grave to properly put her great-grandfather to rest. The film explains the plight of “desaparecidos,” about 100,000 people who went missing during Spain’s civil war. They were savagely executed and discarded without care in undisclosed locations. Their families have been unable to rest because their loved ones were not given a proper burial; the resting place of their remains unconfirmed for decades. This strong message is lost in the silliness of the rest of the film. The conflict could have stood strong as an entirely separate movie, perhaps even a better one. Although it is well intentioned, I believe this half-baked tangent causes Parallel Mothers to become overly long. Almodóvar would have had a stronger film without it. You can’t have both—a film either needs to tackle a serious topic with care or be an absurd soap opera. Few can successfully combine them, and I am sad to say Almodóvar is only mildly successful.
There is also repeat gang-rape mentioned as a throwaway story, without offering justice to the victim. Men call the shots in this woman’s tale, and there are no repercussions for the abusers. Parallel Mother’s message seems to unintentionally support the anti-abortion laws recently passed in Texas due to its generally happy ending, but I digress. A t-shirt that Janis wears in one scene that reads, “we should all be feminists,” is ironic to say the least. Despite being a movie centered on female stories, it can’t escape its male director.
Theaters everywhere give birth to Parallel Mothers when it releases on December 24.