Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz make beautiful movies together. You watch their latest collaboration, “Parallel Mothers,” with simultaneous joy and regret: the former for the way in which the film creates its rich world, the latter for the fact that by necessity it must eventually end. It has numerous Almodóvar hallmarks — it’s a story of women, a plot that dances a delicate tango with melodrama, a primary-color-splashed visual feast — but feels entirely fresh; it’s as if the Spanish filmmaker is re-creating his own genre anew.
Cruz here plays Janis, a single 40-ish photographer in Madrid who quite early in the film becomes pregnant — an accident, but for her a happy one — after a brief relationship with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist whose profession becomes more significant later on. Almodóvar whisks us through courtship and conception (an element beautifully evoked by a breezy curtain billowing at an open window); within minutes, time scoots forward and Janis is at a hospital ready to give birth. There she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager who, unlike Janis, has some regrets about her own pregnancy. The two bond in the maternity ward, before and after giving birth to their daughters; their connection becomes the movie’s key relationship, in unexpected ways.
“Parallel Mothers” offers multiple mother-daughter pairs: the two women and their infants; the maternal relationship Janis forms with Ana; Ana’s troubled relationship with her own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actor who coolly admits to not having a maternal instinct. And in its wider lens, it examines what ancestry means: Janis’ great-grandfather, killed in the Spanish Civil War and buried in a mass grave, looms over this movie as an unresolved tragedy in her family’s past. Cruz’s Janis gazes at her baby as if the child brought her clearer vision, wondering if she can see traces of past loved ones in the infant’s features, continuing an unbroken line. And when the plot twists and Janis reads words on a computer screen that change her life, Cruz shows us a woman crumbling; her anguished voice turning to dust.
Cruz owns this movie, as she’s owned so many of Almodóvar’s (my favorite of their many collaborations: the gorgeously haunting ghost story “Volver”); she’s mesmerizing, whether peeling potatoes or facing existential crisis. Almodóvar fills the movie with eloquent touches — scenes softly fading to black, music twisting like vines, an old house whose stories whisper in every corner, a baby’s watchful eyes, a past that informs a future. Generations pass, this wise movie tells us; family endures.