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Parallel Mothers review – uneven but compelling melodrama of birth and death

Pedro Almodóvar's latest feels minor in comparison to his best works, but it's still often irresistibly soapy and colourful

For his last film, Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar dug deeper into his own soul than he perhaps had with any of his previous work, and the result was something beautifully personal and soulful that sacrificed none of his usual stylistic swagger and ambition. His follow up, Parallel Mothers, returns him to perhaps safer territory, the sort of soapy melodrama weighted with social and historical context that grounds the rather silly plot in an earthy reality. It’s a film Almodóvar could almost make with his eyes closed – a highly watchable, colourful drama, albeit one that won’t live anywhere near as long in the memory as his best work.

Penélope Cruz marks her seventh collaboration with Almodóvar as Janis, a magazine photographer in Madrid whose non-working moments are occupied by a quest to unearth a Spanish Civil War-era mass grave that may contain the remains of her great-grandfather. Helping her in this endeavour is hotshot forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), with whom Janis has a steamy affair that leads to her becoming pregnant. She’s thrilled by the development, even as Arturo backs away from any possible co-parenting possibility, and is in high spirits when she meets her maternity ward roommate Ana (Milena Smit).

A teenager with cold and distant parents, Ana is distinctly less excited than Janis to be having a kid, but as they tentatively guide each other through the process, the pair of mothers form a loving bond, one that helps Ana accept her situation, and they both leave the hospital with babies they adore. It’s a comfy setup until Janis starts to have suspicions that a hospital mix-up has switched her and Ana’s babies around – a suspicion that is confirmed but not acted upon, even as Janis and Ana’s lives become more and more intertwined.

It’s a ripe, pulpy premise, engaging in its mysteries even if does take quite a while for Almodóvar to get all his ducks in a row, and there is an undeniable pleasure in watching it reveal itself, even if the big emotional beats are oddly underpowered. Parallel Mothers weighs itself down in a lot of pure plot even before adding the historical undercurrent of unanswered war crimes; it gives a lot of thematic weight to proceedings, but sometimes the raw humanity of the piece feels a little overwhelmed. Cruz is reliably great as the lead, though, and Smit is impressive in a breakout performance that morphs and shifts into different people throughout as Ana grows up across the film’s two-year timespan.

As with any Almodóvar film, Parallel Mothers is packed with bright colours and ultra-enviable interior design, though some overly enthusiastic lighting can make some scenes look a bit “made-for-TV.” This visual choppiness is one of a few hiccups that put this on a lower plinth in the legendary director’s pantheon, even with its ambitious couplings of past and future showing a filmmaker intelligently grappling with how old histories continue to shape a nation. These lofty ideas don’t quite coalesce with the hoariness of the central story but, even running parallel to one another, their combined force is still often irresistible.

Parallel Mothers is in UK cinemas from 28 January.

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