Review: Parallel Mothers/The Human Voice

Though Pedro Almodovar is rightly lauded for his sense of style and control of visual tone, he doesn’t really get enough credit as a storyteller, probably because many of his films seem to be heavily indebted to older films by other directors. In Parallel Mothers, he weaves a melodramatic tale of two women who’ve had motherhood thrust upon them into a meditation on national memory—or, more correctly, the erasure of national memory when it comes to the Spanish Civil War, a subject that is still very sensitive in Spain. A fashion photographer named Janis (Penelope Cruz) meets a forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), through her work, and she asks him about his own work, which involves digging up bodies from unmarked burial grounds throughout Spain. Janis and her family have always wanted to exhume the remains of her grandfather, who was murdered by Franco’s troops during the civil war, but didn’t know how to go about it. Arturo offers to help her seek approval and carry out the exhumation. But before that, as fitting an Almodovar story, they sleep together.

Janis, who is the daughter and granddaughter of single mothers (she was named after Janis Joplin), doesn’t insist that Arturo take responsibility for raising the daughter she eventually bears, since he is already married. While preparing to give birth in the hospital, she befriends another expectant mother, a teenager named Ana (Milena Smit), who has her daughter the same day Janis has hers. At this point, the original story about the hidden graves is subsumed by the fraught tale of Janis and Ana’s friendship, which involves the awful story of how Ana became pregnant, Ana’s problematic relationship with her neglectful actor mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and Janis’s prickly feminism, which sometimes rubs Ana the wrong way despite the fact that Janis is twice her age. 

What’s conspicuously missing from much of the story is men. Though Arturo comes and goes throughout the film’s two-hour running time, his value to the story is utilitarian in more ways than one. As the title suggests, it’s the two women’s parallel experiences as first-time mothers that provide the dramatic impetus for a story that, per Almodovar’s m.o., isn’t surprising but nevertheless more deeply affecting than his usual tales of heartbreak. As Janis and Ana move in and out of each other’s emotional orbit, their lives change in consequential and provocative ways. But what makes the movie so moving is Almodovar’s sympathies for everyone involved. Janis is probably the most appealingly realistic character he’s ever created, and even Ana’s mother, who first comes off as a selfish careerist, is revealed to be about much more than her conservative values. So in the end, when the film comes full circle to address the tragic legacy of the Spanish Civil War, it does so with (female) characters who expand on the film’s central theme of being honest not only with oneself and others, but with history as well.

Being released simultaneously is Almodovar’s first English language film, The Human Voice, a “free” adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play. It’s basically a one-woman-and-a-dog-show featuring Tilda Swinton as an aging model waiting in a stew of rage and despair in her apartment for her ex-lover to come and pick up their things. Filmed on a characteristically colorful sound stage set, this efficient, monologue-driven production is pretty much Swinton’s gig, as her character swings wildly between suicidal longing, violent anger, and contemplative resignation. Her telephone conversation is one-sided in that we don’t hear the lover at all, so Swinton has her work cut out for her. She makes it work, but the film’s success may also be due to its 30-minute run time. Anything longer and the viewer might end up as emotionally exhausted as Swinton’s character. 

Parallel Mothers in Spanish and The Human Voice in English (separate admission). Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).

Parallel Mothers/The Human Voice home page in Japanese

photo (c) Remotamente Films AIE & El Deseo DASLU

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