Review: Parallel Mothers is Pedro Almodovar's latest exuberant offering

Parallel Mothers (M, 123 minutes)

4 stars

There is a moment in the latest richly textured melodrama from writer-director Pedro Almodovar when its glamorous star stands at the sink in a plain white T-shirt with a feminist message as she peels potatoes. Penelope Cruz's character Janis is teaching a young friend how to make a Spanish omelette, that staple of Spanish cuisine.

Janis is a professional woman and no domestic goddess, even if it is hard for Cruz to look like anything other than one. Expository scenes of Janis at work reveal her job as a fashion photographer, though the drama of Parallel Mothers mostly takes place in her home.

And what a pad it is, decked out in sumptuous primary colours. Perhaps the glossy palette combining yellows, oranges, red, blues and greens shouldn't work but it does, gloriously and exuberantly. The filmmaker is famous for the look of his work and this film is no exception with its fabulously rich, deep colours and fascinating visual touches. It's a deeply satisfying mise-en-scene in its own right.

A scene from Parallel Mothers. Picture: Sony

A scene from Parallel Mothers. Picture: Sony

A new single mum, Janis was pipping 40 when she decided to keep the baby she conceived during an affair with a married man, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). When he asks her to wait because he isn't ready, she decides to go ahead on her own.

While giving birth in the maternity ward, Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit), a woman not yet 20, who is also a new mother and on her own. They bond as women so often do during the crucible experience, and despite the difference in their ages, develop a friendship. Both have daughters.

In the intricately articulated mechanism of the plot, circumstances conspire to throw the two women together again some time later. Ana's own mother has left her daughter to cope on her own as she chases an acting career that has finally taken off. So, when Ana and Janis connect again, not entirely by chance, the younger woman has quite a story to tell.

When she hears that Ana's baby daughter has died, Janis invites her to work as a live-in nanny. It's the backdrop to the scene where Janis teaches Ana how to cook and run a house. When it comes down to it, the basics of motherhood don't change that much from generation to generation.

The question that drives Parallel Mothers, with its numerous narrative threads, is triggered by Arturo when he sees his baby daughter. With her honeyed skin and her almond eyes, little Cecilia doesn't look much like him. Janis protests that these features may be inherited from a Venezuelan ancestor, but doubts prompt Janis to get herself and her daughter tested for a genetic match. And things become more complicated from there.

It is a credit to Almodovar's directorial skill that he can balance the twists and turns, but the return to the theme of political repression that bookends the narrative here is not the smoothest.

While working as a photographer alongside Arturo, a forensic archaeologist, Janis had asked his foundation for help to uncover mass graves near her village containing the bodies of her great-grandfather and other men who disappeared during Spain's civil war. The final chapter returns to these themes, adding a tidy, if playful, resolution that sorts out Janis' private life, but is a rather abrupt change of gear.

Before the end credits scroll, quotes like "No history is mute" from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano feature appear. As Janis claims in a fiery exchange with Ana, the young know too little about their country's recent turbulent history.

On a lighter note, Ana had no idea who the rock legend Janis Joplin, her older friend's namesake, was either.

This is the eighth collaboration between Cruz and Almodovar since Live Flesh in 1997. Cruz is a staple in the exotic world the Spanish auteur has created with films like the brilliant Pain and Glory.

Women like Cruz and in earlier times Rossy de Palma (who appears here as Elena) have often been the muse for the openly gay director, whose exuberant, beautiful, humanistic art has been appearing on the big screen for five decades.

This story Intricate tale is richly textured first appeared on The Canberra Times.