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New to VOD - PARALLEL MOTHERS

parallel mothers
A mother holds onto a secret regarding her newborn child.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar

Starring: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde, Julieta Serrano, Rossy de Palma

Parallel Mothers poster

With Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar combines his two great cinematic loves – Hitchcock and the melodrama – to at times riveting effect in a movie with a premise that in many hands might resemble a Lifetime movie of the week. Unfortunately this melodramatic thriller is interrupted by an ill-fitting subplot concerning the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. A story that should really have a movie of its own is treated as an afterthought, wrapped up in a final 20 minutes that proves a misjudged coda to the movie we've just witnessed.

Photographer Janis Martinez (Penélope Cruz) enlists the professional aid of archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) in excavating a Civil War mass grave that she believes contains the corpse of her great-grandfather. While working together the two become romantically involved, with Janis getting pregnant and deciding to have the baby against Arturo's wishes. While in hospital she befriends another expectant mother, teenager Ana (Milena Smit). The two have their kids at the exact same time and promise to stay in touch.

Parallel Mothers review

When Arturo meets the child he didn't want, he is convinced he isn't the father. The baby looks suspiciously South American, which Janis puts down to her father, whom she never met, hailing from Venezuala. Arturo asks for a paternity test, which Janis refuses. In the following days, Janis finds herself haunted by the idea that the baby may not actually be hers, and decides to take a maternity test, which confirms her fear.


I don’t think it's a spoiler to reveal the obvious point that Janis and Ana's babies were swapped in the hospital, and there's no real way to discuss the film without broaching this point, as it informs everything that's interesting about the movie. In similar fashion to Maggie Gyllenhaal's recent drama The Lost Daughter, Parallel Mothers is another story of a mother keeping a cruel secret from another mother. Having grown attached to the child she brought home from the hospital, Janis is unwilling to do a trade with Ana. Instead, perhaps out of guilt, she invites the young mother to live with her as a nanny.

Parallel Mothers review

In this manner, Almodóvar delivers a unique twist on Hitchcock's Vertigo. Janis's deception of Ana is similar to that of Kim Novak's with Jimmy Stewart, but instead of concealing her own identity she's hiding that of her child. And as with Novak, her deception is done out of love, which makes it ultimately all the more cruel.


Cruz gives arguably her finest performance in many a year here, and Parallel Mothers is a case of a director/star combo so in sync at this point that it makes the filmmaking invisible and organic. Almodóvar knows his leading lady is capable of speaking volumes with her expressive face, and so much of the detail of Parallel Mothers' plot is left unsaid. There's barely a word of exposition here. Instead we follow the narrative through Cruz's physical performance, which becomes increasingly tightly wound to the point where you expect her to start having a nose bleed from the stress of her secret.

Parallel Mothers review

As much as Parallel Mothers works as a Hitchcockian thriller crossed with what was once reductively labelled a "woman's picture," there are several gaps of logic in which people and institutions behave in an unrealistic manner in service of the plot. For a start, how could Janis and Ana mix up their babies when they look so unalike? Would something as serious as the results of a negative maternity test really be delivered through an email rather than a personal phone call? Another stumbling block for the film is the lesbian affair that develops between Janis and Ana, which adds little to the plot but a bit of sensationalism, and both Janis and the movie seem oblivious to the uncomfortable detail that the latter is a minor.

But what really disrupts Parallel Mothers is that Civil War subplot. It's forgotten about for most of the movie, and when it pops back up in the climax it's the most jarring turn I can recall a movie taking in quite some time. I understand that Spain's suppression of the Civil War is supposed to be analogous to Janis's behaviour, but it's a far too weighty subject to be shoe-horned in such a manner. It's akin to Hitchcock ending Vertigo by saying "If you thought those two were dodgy, wait until I tell you about this Stalin guy."

Parallel Mothers
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.



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