Indulging in the Academy Awards season is easier than ever if you have the free time and all the accesses. The proliferation of streaming services has opened new doorways for any wannabe cineaste to create their own little film festival at home, with a panoply of options from across every category. However, some nominees still stubbornly observed the time-honored tradition of refusing a wide release until after their nominations were secured, and have therefore been exclusive to theaters this past month. Thankfully this year has been easier than ever for me to catch up to Real Critics — as of today Indianapolis has expanded from one tiny theater to four whole theaters willing to show films of all sizes, not just blockbusters, as we did ten years ago. It’s almost like we’re this close to becoming a real Big City.
One hope for my expanded Oscar Quest ’22 was fulfilled: fascinating new experiences I might not have otherwise prioritized. When the nominations were announced, our town’s new indie theater was still showing Parallel Mothers, the latest feature from the continually acclaimed Pedro Almodovar. I’ve read about many of his films for over half my life, but never actually watched one all the way through before. The first time I ran across him, I was a college-bound youngster who found Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! one night while channel-flipping, but didn’t stick around for the whole thing. I also faintly remember frequent commercials on the same channel for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which likely fit well into their niche programming. Till now, that’s been it for me. Read about these fleeting moments and more in my forthcoming memoir I Was an Unsupervised Teen with Cinemax.
As firsthand full introductions go, Parallel Mothers was a great place to start. Penelope Cruz is a professional photographer named Janis (not the side of the camera you’d expect her to be on) who meets a forensic archaeologist (Israel Elejalde) and asks for his organization’s assistance with exhuming a purported mass grave in her hometown that dates back to the Spanish Civil War. (Sheltered viewers who learn all their history from movies may recall this atrocity-laden event from Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.) He says “maybe” to her main question, “yes” to an unrelated question, yadda yadda yadda, she’s on track to becoming a surprise single mom. She shares a maternity ward room with a teen named Ana (Milena Smit) in the same situation but under different circumstances. Both babies are born, all goes well, and they agree to keep in touch as their babies presumably grow even cuter. Some time passes before they keep this promise, but eventually they do or else this would’ve been nominated for Live-Action Short Film.
Beyond that follow-up crisscrossing of their paths is the land of spoiler-heavy significance. A major happening brings our two moms closer together, but this slowly leads to another shocking thing that threatens to tear previously established things apart. Revelations great and small unfold one by one throughout the film, each one tilting the floor beneath us a few degrees at a time until we realize no one is staying put where they started. Almodovar and his crew are meticulous in their crafts, from the marvelously decorated settings (even in its most tightly sealed bottle-episode acts, every inch of Madrid is enviously tasteful) to the shrewdly juxtaposed edits (loved the handling of a key flashback) to the emotionally precise framing that places everyone just so.
A core piece of that narrative is a device we’ve all seen elsewhere, common enough that even Lifetime movies have done it, but surely not at this level. Poor choices in our cinematic diets have led today’s ordinary viewer to expect such stories to be rife with predictable movements, cliched snap judgments, melodrama, histrionics, and at least one dilemma that can be satisfyingly resolved by bringing a sinister male to justice or vengeance, whether through gunfire or an anguished shove off a balcony. None of that really works when you’re some sort of mad storyteller beholden to no superficial studio notes or marketing whims, one who chooses to create dimensionally conceived, truly mature characters like those we meet here. Everyone’s damaged in some way, and some are tempted to succumb to selfish fallback shifts. How they meet those challenges comes to define who they are as individuals, which often requires stepping up to tough choices, which then in turn frees them to determine how and whether they can relate to those around them.
In short, everyone’s so curiously real. They make decisions I wouldn’t, but they aren’t me, and the chain of thought that takes them along their intersecting paths asks the viewer to sympathize even as they refuse to indulge in easy ways out. We follow along with their regrets, their tears, and then their healing. We can feel the severing and the reconnecting of families, of the blood and the found varieties. (The whole Spanish Civil War thing is kept offstage for long periods, but it’s inevitably hitched back on for deeper meaning in the exemplary figurative coda.) Relationships form on the most unusual of commonalities while others fade into the background. Yes, in a few spots this means sexytime moments that I’d normally fuss about, but you never get the sense that they were added to the screenplay because the director or a producer wanted an excuse to see an actress naked. It’s far from chaste (unless you compare it to its more risque Best International Feature rivals), but the visual content level isn’t anything that Shonda Rhimes couldn’t coax ABC to air at 10 p.m.
I realize much of this is vague. It’s a lot of words to convey the sense of my emotional wowing without spoilers. Anyone who’s already seen and super-loved every Almodovar film ever is welcome to pat me on the head. I’ll understand their condescension. In direct response to my Parallel Mothers experience, after the most recent Criterion half-off flash sale All About My Mother is now on my Blu-ray shelf waiting its turn. We’ll see where this viewer’s path leads next.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I don’t know too many famous folks over in Spain, but Ana’s mom — an actress whose delayed gratification of her stardom dreams opens a rift between the two of them — is played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, best known to Gen-Xers as Keanu Reeves’ love interest in A Walk in the Clouds. And as Janis’ BFF Elena, Rossy de Palma still bears the same distinctive profile I remember from those Cinemax ads for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Their recurring “Vanguard Cinema” feature used to be awesome for platforming hidden gems like that.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Parallel Mothers end credits, though lovers of old-fashioned media can appreciate how their downward scroll is shaped like 35mm film, sprocket holes and all.