Lines of Descent
With any substantial body of work there comes a point when new additions to it struggle to match up to the aggregate presence of all that has gone before: what I sometimes call the 'Bank Holiday Bond' phenomena, where each new James Bond film is forced to compete not just with individual previous films, but the collective memory of the rest of the series. It doesn't just happen with series and franchises, but anything with consistent style and sensibility.
If you were to watch Parallel Mothers with the credits removed and the sound turned off, there's a pretty good chance – assuming you know your world cinema – that you'd be able to guess exactly what you were dealing with. The setting is photogenic, Spanish, mostly urban, with fabulous interior décor; the cast is predominantly female, with a leading role for Penelope Cruz; not a very great deal seems to happen in terms of conventional action, though this doesn't stop everyone clearly having an emotional time of it. Yes, it's a Pedro Almodovar movie – and Almodovar's reputation has reached the point where anything other than a supremely accomplished film inevitably feels like a bit of a disappointment.
Cruz plays Janis, a successful photographer living in Madrid. After taking some pictures of Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, she asks for his help: some of the men from her home village were killed in one of the purges at the very beginning of the Spanish Civil War. The families have located the site of the mass grave and are seeking professional assistance in having the remains excavated.
Quite apart from all this, Janis and Arturo hit it off on a personal level – without dwelling too much on the details of los pajaros y las abejas, Janis falls pregnant. Unfortunately, Arturo is unwilling to commit, but this does not concern Janis overly. Down at the maternity hospital she makes the acquaintance of Ana, a teenage girl also having her first child, albeit in rather less agreeable circumstances. The two women become friends, giving birth at almost exactly the same time, and having very similar experiences – both infants are whisked off for observation just after delivery.
Eventually, however, they both take their children home, staying in touch: Janis has to contend with a less than impressive au pair, while Ana's mother seems more concerned with her acting career than her daughter and granddaughter. But then Arturo, who is visiting, openly wonders why Janis' daughter doesn't resemble either of them that closely. Janis reluctantly has a test done in secret, and learns the disquieting truth – there has been a mix-up at the hospital and the child she is raising is not her own…
So, for the most part it seems to stick pretty closely to the sort of thing you'd expect of an Almodovar film – the director works his usual minor miracle by making a film mostly comprised of people having conversations in cafes and apartments, and yet still manages to keep things engrossing. There's a sense in which most of the story takes place on a very intimate and human level, and yet Almodovar finds a way to elevate the emotions to an almost operatic pitch without tilting the whole thing over into camp. As it is, the narrative skips back and forth between conventional drama and melodrama with the greatest elegance.
Mixed in with it this time, however, is something else, and perhaps essentially Spanish. To my regret, I know very little about the details of the Civil War in Spain; my understanding is that the whole subject remains sensitive and little-discussed in Spain itself. The conflict is still within living memory, and something the country has yet to fully come to terms with. Certainly this is the first Almodovar film to address the topic, even obliquely: and even here it initially seems like the plotline about the excavation of a war grave is just a plot device.
It is not, but it takes a long time for this to become apparent. The film as a whole is about the idea of family – not just the people close to us, and those we choose to live with, but the people from whom we have emerged and those whom we will leave in our place. The uncertainty that Cruz's character feels about her great-grandfather's fate in the war is echoed in the question-mark over the whereabouts of her true daughter and the nature of her relationship with the child she is raising.
To be honest, it feels like a combination of soap opera plotting with an act of historical witness, a slightly peculiar combination which Almodovar never quite manages to integrate with complete successful: the sequences concerning the war and the dig feel like bookends on a rather more typical Almodovar drama, one which doesn't quite resolve entirely satisfyingly as a result.
Nevertheless, it's still an engaging and moving story. It's certainly a brilliant showcase for the talent of Penelope Cruz, who gets the chance to develop a fully-rounded characterisation and dominate the film – completely believable even when possibly acting a little irrationally, this is the kind of performance that cries out for recognition, and it is no surprise at all she is in the running for an Oscar this year. Almodovar still manages to find space for impressive contributions from Milana Smit and Aijana Sanchez-Gijon as well.
Does it quite live up to the standard of the best of Almodovar's earlier films? Perhaps not; it's not as utterly satisfying and rewarding as a film like – to choose an example – Talk to Her. But in that case we're talking about an exceptional film, a classic. You can praise a film for being brilliant, but it's unfair to criticise one for not reaching that standard. This is a very good film by any conventional standard.