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In 'Parallel Mothers,' Almodóvar hitches unruly passions to women and family

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has collaborated with actress Penelope Cruz on seven films in the last 25 years, but getting the latest one made was tricky. "Parallel Mothers" was filmed entirely during the pandemic. It tells an intimate story about two women who give birth the same day. And critic Bob Mondello says it's also about other parallels - political ones.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The film opens with the shutter click of a camera. Janis, played by Penelope Cruz, is a photographer shooting a magazine spread on a forensic anthropologist. As it happens, his work excavating gravesites fits with a project in Janice's hometown. During the Spanish civil war, Fascists executed their opponents, including her great grandfather, and dumped their bodies in unmarked mass graves. When Franco became dictator, the graves were left untouched for decades. The town now wants them exhumed. She wonders if he'd use his influence to help make that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLEL MOTHERS")

PENELOPE CRUZ: (As Janis, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: After she explains, he says, yes, though it will take time. Their relationship, however, heats up on the spot. And nine months later, Janis is in a maternity ward, comforting a teenager who shares her room.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLEL MOTHERS")

CRUZ: (As Janis, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Both of them, she notes, are single mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLEL MOTHERS")

CRUZ: (As Janis, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: "Mine was an accident, but I'm happy," she tells the teen. Ana's accident...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLEL MOTHERS")

MILENA SMIT: (As Ana, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: ...Was a less-happy occasion. But later that day, as both women give birth, the joy is shared.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARALLEL MOTHERS")

CRUZ: (As Janis, speaking Spanish).

SMIT: (As Ana, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Pedro Almodovar makes melodramas - exuberant, colorful - even this hospital ward has bright hues - and invariably filled with unruly passions. In this case, he's hitched the passions to women, to family and to twist after not-so-twist in a plot that puts both Ana and Janice through several ringers.

Cruz has never been more vital. Almadovar seems to free her as no other director does. Newcomer Milena Smit comes across as wounded but stronger than she realizes, as the Almodovar regulars around her serve up the chaos of life. The title "Parallel Mothers" is a bit of a red herring. Parallel lines never meet. These mothers converge in all sorts of odd ways - their mothers, too, including Ana's distant, uninvolved mom who claims to be apolitical, a dodge that won't fly in a film intent on drawing connections between daughters in cribs and great grandfathers in graves, not drawing parallels, just connections, with mothers ever at the center. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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