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‘Parallel Mothers’: Almodóvar smoothly delivers twin stories in the maternity ward

The somber meets the surreal in a gorgeous movie with one of Penelope Cruz’s best performances.

Teenage Ana (Milena Smit) and older Janis (Penelope Cruz) connect while waiting to give birth in “Parallel Mothers.”
Sony Pictures Classics

The wildly talented and singularly creative Pedro Almodóvar pulls off quite the feat with “Parallel Mothers,” as it feels as if we’re watching two distinctly different movies simultaneously. One crazy-quilt plot thread feels like something out of “The Twilight Zone” meets “Black Mirror,” while the other is a somber, generational tale about the lasting effects of the Spanish Civil War — and both stories resonate.

Frequent Almódovar muse Penelope Cruz delivers one of the finest performances of her career as Janis, a photographer on the cusp of 40 who lives and works in Madrid and has a romantic fling with a dashing forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who specializes in identifying the remains of the victims of the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco. One unmarked mass grave is in Janis’ home village and she believes it contains the remains of her great-grandfather, who was taken from his home at the outset of the Spanish Civil War and was never seen again. Arturo is a handsome, sympathetic, quietly heroic figure who will do everything he can to help Janis and her family get closure — but we eventually learn he is also married, and when Janis becomes pregnant, she will go it alone.

Thus begins the second movie within this movie, with Janis in the maternity ward and on the verge of giving birth when she meets the bright and independent teenager Ana (Milena Smit), who also is about to become a single mother. We meet Janis’ best friend, the magazine editor Elena (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma), who sweeps into the room brimming with life and color and joy, and Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a narcissistic actress of a certain age who is more enthusiastic about a possible career-changing theatrical role than becoming a grandmother. Janis and Ana form a bond, and then lose touch after becoming mothers — but circumstances bring them together again, and an unspeakable tragedy occurs, and then, and then, and THEN … well. Let’s just say this is where we enter into some dark and disturbing territory, with Janis and Ana becoming extremely close and eventually entering into a romance, even as one of them harbors a shocking secret.

With gorgeous location cinematography featuring vibrant colors, and a casual, lived-in look that makes us feel as if we’re eavesdropping on the lives of these characters, “Parallel Mothers” is filled with subtly surprising turns, as Arturo re-enters the picture and becomes a more sympathetic figure, and even the self-consumed Teresa displays a touch of self-awareness. Both main stories — the opening of the mass grave in Janis’ village and the extremely complicated relationship between Janis and Ana — involve heartache and loss and the keeping of secrets, ultimately intersecting as the parallel mothers’ lives intertwine. Somehow, the great Almodóvar has managed to weave together these tales of recent birth and long-ago deaths in a way that is unnerving and yet authentic, strange yet relatable.