Two heavily pregnant women – fortysomething photographer Janice (Penélope Cruz) and teenager Ana (Milena Smit) – share a room in a maternity hospital. The brief moment of kinship, forged through shared confidences, sweat and pain as they puff through labour in tandem, will bond them in ways they could never imagine. Meanwhile, Janice is dealing with the legacy of the Spanish civil war, which scarred her family and that of many of her compatriots. In other hands, this dual focus, which pulls us backwards and forwards, rooted in the past and driven to the future, might seem unwieldy. But Pedro Almodóvar makes a light-footed dance of it, negotiating story threads that extend over decades and tie up in the present day.
This latest picture shares with his last full-length feature, Pain and Glory (2019), the message that secrets are best unearthed and confronted if there is any hope of moving forward. But unlike that film’s sumptuous sadness, and despite putting its characters through considerable suffering, Parallel Mothers is a story that is carried on an unexpected swell of optimism. Everything from the joyous colour palette – a cocktail of tangerine and turquoise, watermelon and lemon sorbet – to the Hitchcockian bustle of the score, gives a sense of promise and propulsion. But most of all, it’s Cruz who sets the tone, with a performance that radiates warmth and is refreshingly forgiving of her character’s flaws. She has never been better.