Cruz as historical investigator-turned-expectant mom

Ana (Milena Smit, left) and Janis (Penelope Cruz) meet in a maternity ward in Parallel Mothers.

By Richard Ades

I became a fan of Penelope Cruz after catching her 1992 film debut in Bigas Luna’s Jamón Jamón. On the other hand, I’ve never developed the same level of affection for the director who’s become her frequent collaborator, Pedro Almodóvar. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough of his work.

At any rate, I don’t share some critics’ swooning reaction to the latest Cruz/Almodóvar release, Parallel Mothers. Yes, it’s colorful, quirky, inventive and female-centered, as the Spanish auteur’s flicks often are. But it also has elements that don’t quite fit together, to the extent that it seems like two separate films.  

First, there’s the story of 40-ish photographer Janis (Cruz) and her quest to excavate the suspected graves of her great-grandfather and other townspeople who were executed by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. This puts her in touch with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist connected to a group that’s willing to pay for the work.

But then Janis becomes pregnant following a tryst with the handsome Arturo, and the historical investigation is set aside to make room for what transpires next. This mostly involves Ana (Milena Smit), an equally pregnant teenager whom Janis meets at the hospital. The two women end up giving birth at about the same time, after which their babies are simultaneously separated from them for observation.

You can probably guess what happens next, as it’s a plot device that’s been used in both comedy and melodrama. Here, it leads to problems between Janis and Arturo, who says her baby doesn’t look like him and can’t possibly be his. But the real complications develop between Janis and Ana, whose lives become entwined even though only one of them is aware that the hospital may have made a mistake.

Thanks to the always-watchable Cruz and a confident performance by Smit as the fast-maturing Ana, it’s a pleasure to watch writer-director Almodóvar send the pair through his typically convoluted twists and turns. Still, there’s not as much dramatic pay-off as one might hope. And besides, whatever happened to that planned excavation and its implied critique of Spain’s fascist past?

As it happens, the historical/political theme reappears at the end, where it comes off as a mere bookend to the main body of the film. The upshot is that it has less power than it might have had.

Almodóvar can do better, as he’s proved in flicks such as Volver, a 2006 comedy-drama that stars Cruz as a woman entrapped in Hitchcockian intrigue and family friction involving sisters, mothers and daughters. Like the new film, it’s lively and convoluted. But unlike the new film, it all comes together at the end.

If only Parallel Mothers did the same, it would seem like a unified work rather than a pleasant tale wrapped in a political dust jacket.   

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Parallel Mothers (rated R) opens Jan. 28 in select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Dine-In Easton Town Center 30 and Marcus Crosswords Cinema.