Parallel Mothers | ★★★★½ | Opening in theaters in Carolina Theater and the Rialto on Friday, Jan. 28

Parallel Mothers, the latest from veteran Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, follows the intertwined stories of two women in Madrid. Both are single mothers and both deliver their babies on the same day. Hence, the title. But that’s just the beginning.

Penélope Cruz headlines as Janis, a professional photographer recently assigned to profile forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde).

Arturo’s particular line of work involves investigating the unmarked mass graves left behind from the Spanish Civil War. Arturo’s job, it seems, is endangered. We learn that the current government is actively opposed to examining these old wounds.

After the photoshoot, Janis asks for Arturo’s help unearthing a suspected grave in her hometown. Janis’s great-grandfather was among several men in the village taken from their homes and disappeared by Spanish general Francisco Franco’s thugs. Arturo agrees, the evening progresses, and Janis gets pregnant. Arturo is married, and Janis intends to raise the child on her own.

Nine months later, Janis is in the maternity ward when she meets and bonds with teenage Ana (Milena Smit). We learn that Ana comes from a privileged but cruel family. Her divorced mother and father don’t want to deal with Ana or her pregnancy. Janis and Ana form a fast, deep friendship and promise to stay in touch.

Almodóvar appears to have accidentally started several different movies with this busy setup, but such is the nature of his storytelling style. Parallel Mothers examines themes of family and history and of personal and civic duty, with a kind of stereoscopic narrative approach. The movie proceeds in parabolic loops and arcs, bringing in other central characters—Ana’s mother, Janis’s best friend, Arturo again. The foregrounded characters throw notional shadows that play out in the larger background of history.

The plotline of Parallel Mothers is lush with twists, curves, and swerves. Don’t let anyone reveal anything past the film’s first 20 minutes. It’s melodrama, really, but melodrama so expertly constructed—and so gorgeously presented—that the improbable coincidences and synchronicities never feel artificial. In fact, somehow they even feel destined with Almodóvar‘s famously brilliant colors leading us by the eyeball from scene to scene.

Fans of the director’s earlier and more exuberant films (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) should know that Parallel Mothers is more serious in tone. There is a political superstructure to the story, one with plenty of relevance to where we find ourselves in the United States just now. The film asks some uncomfortable questions about inaction and injustice, about deceit and denial, about how people and nations confront their past—or fail to do so.

At the same time, we get the lovely character drama in the foreground as Janis and Ana’s relationship becomes gradually and extremely complicated. Penélope Cruz is so very good at this stuff. Her performance ranges from subtle to ferocious, depending on what the scene requires. (Last year, she won the Best Actress prize at the Venice International Film Festival.) As teenage Ana, relative newcomer Smit is heartbreaking in her vulnerability.

This is all top-shelf filmmaking, and delicious on that level, but again, those colors! Pedro Almodóvar clearly lives in a different world than the rest of us poor bastards. In Almodóvar’s world, spaces are perfectly lit and precisely arranged. His colors pop and shimmer, and he does things with blending that appear to be sorcery. I don’t think there are names for some of the colors in this film.

Layered atop storytelling this advanced, with performances this good, Almodóvar’s visual wizardry elevates the moviegoing experience to realms of giddy aesthetic pleasure. For those dazed by pandemic series television habits, it’s a reminder of how beautiful the old-fashioned feature film can be.

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