Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 26, 2021 1:52 pm 
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Almodóvar scores high with a mix of feminism and earnest politics

Parallel Mothers is a wonderful role for Penélope Cruz, her eighth in a series of great outings with the director. She plays a convincing late-thirties though in real life is actually forty-seven. But her glowing looks at this age, though astonishing, are only the beginning of her wonderfulness. The film combines two unrelated tales, of two women of very different ages who bond in a hospital bedroom giving birth as single mothers and run into telenovela complications with the babes thereafter; and an effort, successful at the end, to exhume the remains of a relative, and others, murdered by Falangists and buried in a mass grave near the family pueblo during the Spanish civil war. Otherwise the plot is unusually simple for Almodóvar and may be the Spaniard's most widely appealing film in a long time, though, not for the first time, I felt left hanging at the end because only the second story seems resolved. The double plot-line combines two of his favorite things, hospitals and death. As usual, thanks to coordination of the director's superb team of editor, cinematographer, composer, and set designer, the film looks and sounds great, glows with glossy color like the work of no other filmmaker, and flows like silk, even when the plot developments are shocking or disjointed.

Janis (Cruz) is a top-level photographer who has a fling with an attractive forensic archeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), whom she meets by shooting him for a magazine. Note the oddity of Almodóvar's method: a long passage of expository dialogue between the two characters that methodically sets up the theme of the exhumation of the Falangists' victims is followed by a few seconds of sex between them, immediately followed by Janis and Ana (Milena Smit), hugely pregnant and sharing the hospital room about to give birth. The sequence would seem strangely perfunctory if the director's method were not so smooth and artful that you accept it. But the storytelling arbitrariness - long expository dialogue, quick sex, jump to the maternity ward - stuck in my mind through the rest of the film. That Almodóvar wastes no time, is part of his distinctive method: this film was shot in a month.

Despite this odd coolness that characterizes the director, reviewers justifiably talk about how warm this picture is and how suffused with love it is, even for potentially unappealing characters like Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Ana's mother, a career-centered actress who is just getting her big chance in her late forties in a play that's starting in the provinces so she can't be in Madrid to help take care of the baby. Teresa later gets a chance to explain herself to Janis and to admit that she always wanted bo be an actress and never cared about being a wife or a mother. To call her "narcissistic" as one prominent American critic has done is unfair in the feminist context.

Almodóvar has always been a woman's director, like the gay Old Hollywood helmer George Cukor (1899-1983), but this particularly is a movie saturated with sympathy for women's roles, both career and family. There is a spectrum of feminine views here. Janis is 100% behind following up on her unexpected pregnancy, against the wishes of Arturo, who is married and whose wife is terminally ill: let's have one later, he says. No, I am going to keep this one, she says. Ana is still a teenager and her pregnancy is something she has reason to be depressed about. She is scared, she's young and unformed, and the cause of pregnancy was a brutal experience when she was coerced into sex with more than one boy. Janis, named for Janis Joplin by her hippie mother who herself died of a drug overdose at 27, is the third generation of single mothers and is proud to continue the tradition. Janis is a hotshot at her profession; her steadfast rock is her agent and dear friend the vibrant Elena, played by the director's dynamo Eighties discovery Rossy de Palma.

This movie is all about women. As Jessica Kiang wrote in The Playlist, "Janis' 'We Should All be Feminists' T-shirt is entirely redundant – considering how sidelined they are, 'Men are people too' would be the more provocative slogan in this context."

The plot surprises, which we can't go into here, are conventional/telenovela/melodrama material. We see some of them coming well ahead of time. They're also partly weird and shocking in the Almodóvar style. But even if they are grotesque, they are still plausible; and Almodóvar remains in the later, more serious mode he has mostly grown into since the 2000's (not counting the popular but slapdash 2013 airplane comedy I'm So Excited!). Thus these surprises read as examples of the hard stuff women have to be able to deal with. In th middle of them Penélope Cruz's Janis is a model of forbearance, generosity, and sacrifice. Ana has grown up markedly through the process of motherhood, dealing with some very hard stuff herself; though she also seems to be becoming a bit clingy as as the plot thickens.

Toward the end, the almost-forgotten political plot reappears and exactly where the relationships between Ana, Janis, and Arturo are going seems left dangling while the forensic archeology project, which has taken many months, as it was explained, to acquire official approval, can move forward in a matter of "three or four days" once the site of the Falangists' collective burial of victims has been identified by Janis. The happy finale is a neatly arranged pile of scattered and numbered human skeletons. An odd way to end a romantic feminist melodrama, perhaps, but the way the director drags this for him unusual political theme onto the screen is another one of his shocks and surprises, this time a solemn and historical one from Almodóvar, who is now seventy-two, with an eye to awakening the younger generation. Those skeletons are just a handful of the more than 100,000 victims of the Falangists who still lie in unmarked graves, the film tells us. It's quite possible that Spanish teenagers like Ana are unaware of their country's brutal modern history.

Madres paralelas/Parallel Mothers, 123 mins., debuted as the opening film at Venice Sept. 1, 2021. It premiered in Madrid in early Oct., then playing in 20 international festivals starting with New York. US limited release Dec. 24, 2021, on Netflix streaming in early 202l. Metacritic rating: 87%.

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