'Parallel Mothers' review: A singular achievement from Cruz, Almodóvar

The director-star team of Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz find richness in drama about two mothers and their unexpected connection.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Pedro Almodóvar tells parallel stories in "Parallel Mothers," a gripping drama with soap opera twists and turns as well as a larger story about family, heritage and connection to something larger than oneself. 

Writer-director Almodóvar once again teams with his muse Penélope Cruz, with whom he's partnered on six previous movies dating back 25 years. (Together, they've made more movies than even Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.) Theirs is a fruitful creative partnership and they communicate in a shorthand visual language, and Cruz delivers her richest performance in years as a single mother in modern day Madrid navigating a series of unexpected obstacles. 

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in "Parallel Mothers."

Cruz is Janis, a boutique photographer who has an affair with one of her subjects, a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who has a wife of his own. Janis winds up pregnant — Almodóvar smash cuts from their hotel room hook-up to Janis in the hospital and ready to give birth — and in the maternity ward she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teen who is also on the verge of single motherhood. They become fast friends and exchange information, not knowing how intertwined in each other's lives they'll soon become.   

After Janis gives birth, Arturo visits to see the baby; their interaction is brief, and he leaves suddenly. Spotting the baby's features, he questions if the baby is his, angering Janis but arousing her own curiosity, and giving voice to something she'd questioned privately but tried to suppress. A DNA test takes "Parallel Mothers" down its first of several detours, each new corridor accompanied by grandiose orchestral cues from Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias.

That's the A-story, and it's a constantly shifting narrative with a series of heart-rending revelations that in lesser hands could feel falsely melodramatic, but here feels expertly executed. Underneath is a story about ancestry, as Cruz's Janis hires Arturo to excavate the mass grave where her great grandfather and other members of the community were buried during the Spanish Civil War. It's a reckoning with history and offers a direct connection to the past, and ties in with the modern story by heightening familial ties, our links through generations, and the ways the past continues to inform the future. 

Almodóvar handles the material with poise and a nimble hand, and fills his frames with bold splashes of color and lively visual poetry. At 72, he's still a force. Cruz and Smit, meanwhile, are excellent both individually and together, but Cruz is especially strong, whether embodying female strength and resolve or silently crumbling when reading the attachment of an email. She's a marvel, and she brings the two sides of "Parallel Mothers" together as one. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Parallel Mothers'

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for some sexuality

Running time: 123 minutes

In theaters