Pedro Almodóvar, Penélope Cruz on the Pain and Beauty of ‘Parallel Mothers’

How do you move on from the most personal project you’ve ever made? For Pedro Almodóvar, the answer lurked in the past. Writing Pain and Glory, a semi-autobiographical portrait starring Antonio Banderas, required great emotional investment for the Oscar-winning filmmaker: “I felt dizzy, I felt vertigo…. It’s something I’d never done before.” But having made more than 20 movies over a four-decade-plus career, he’s long realized that cinema is his life. So he dove right back into his life’s work—specifically, a screenplay draft nearly 10 years old. He was approaching it anew, however: as a changed, ever-evolving artist.

Almodóvar finds his films getting deeper, citing a “tipping point” with 2016’s Julieta. “They’re starker, more austere, less baroque,” he tells me through a translator over Zoom. “I think that change has surprised people.” 

I ask him if, at this late phase of his career, such renewed attention has felt surprising to him. “Am I at the end of my career?” he asks with a booming laugh. “My God.”

In fact, it feels more like he’s just getting started again. And it’s not like one of the world’s most highly regarded directors needed to step it up. In addition to his original-screenplay Oscar (for 2002’s Talk to Her), the 71-year-old Almodóvar has won five Goya Awards in his native Spain; best director and best screenplay prizes from the Cannes Film Festival; and five BAFTA awards. But Almodóvar is a restless filmmaker, not content to repeat himself, constantly focused on expanding the boundaries of his storytelling. 

In its melancholy inward turn, Pain and Glory marked a kind of radical, thrilling departure. By digging the script for Parallel Mothers out of a drawer for his next feature, he returned to his signature theme of the maternal and his signature style of colorful, bold, twisty melodrama. These Almodóvarian hallmarks developed out of his own upbringing, surrounded by powerful women he admired and adored. And as he’s gotten older, he’s developed a greater interest in these heroines’ flaws, the moral dilemmas they might face. Enter Parallel Mothers—which, over three months in quarantine, he rewrote almost entirely. “All of my mothers have been a kind of force of nature—natural fighters, no prejudices,” Almodóvar says. “I try not to repeat things I did in the past…. That kind of imperfection, which is very real too, attracted me more than ever before.”

By Iglesias Más/Sony Pictures Classics.

What Almodóvar fans can comfortably expect from Parallel Mothers is a rich, affectionate dynamic between its two main women—Janis (Penélope Cruz), a magazine photographer who embarks on an affair with a forensic anthropologist, and Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager harboring a secret. Through their various experiences, they wind up in the same maternity ward, pregnant and destined for single-motherhood—which elates Janis and terrifies Ana. After a complication, the two women are bound more inextricably than either could have foreseen—with Janis, eventually, in the position of holding a critical revelation from her new, vulnerable friend. 

What’s less expected is the way the film’s scope expands, generously and provocatively—to Ana’s own mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an aspiring actor whose narcissism belies the ambivalence and regret she feels as a parent, and to Janis’s family history, the traumatic legacy of the Spanish Civil War which has kept her searching for answers her whole life. “I’m talking about mothers who are alone—it’s not just that they’re single mothers but they’re alone with themselves as well,” Almodóvar says. “I don’t think I’d ever really talked so much about that loneliness.”

With sparkling production design—weaving between modern Madrid and the rural village of Janis’s family—and the haunting dramatic score from Alberto Iglesias, Parallel Mothers wraps an uncommonly thorny narrative in a typically bright and playful package. The key to tying it all together? The star who made her Almodóvar debut nearly 25 years ago, and has now, in their seventh and greatest collaboration, reached a new career high.

Penélope Cruz remembers the first time Almodóvar called her: She was 18 years old, and he said over the phone that she should expect to be cast in one of his films before too long. She’d already idolized him growing up; to her, he represented a “freedom” in his artistic expressions. “When I was little, I thought, ‘This is a man that should be president,’” she recalls with a laugh.

In the years since, the 47-year-old Cruz has played many an Almodóvar mother: to tragic results, in 1999’s All About My Mother; to her first Oscar nomination, in 2006’s Volver; and, via flashbacks, to fascinatingly memoiristic ends in 2019’s Pain and Glory. Almodóvar closely tracks the progression of their relationship throughout our conversation. An example: “In All About My Mother, Cecilia Roth’s character almost adopts the character played by Penélope Cruz,” he says. “Funnily enough, in Parallel Mothers, it’s Penélope Cruz’s character who practically adopts Ana…with far more consequences.”

Also funnily enough: The first time Almodóvar brought Parallel Mothers up to Cruz was during a press day for All About My Mother, decades ago in New York. (“It’s changed a lot” since then, Cruz deadpans now.) The next time she heard about it was on one of their regular FaceTime calls during the early days of COVID-19 lockdown, not long before shooting would begin. “We grew up together…I know her so well,” Almodóvar says. “She has a blind faith in me…so I can dare to write more complex characters for her.” Cruz agrees, telling me, “You can feel the energy on the set. I know if he’s slept, if he’s nervous about something—before he even says, ‘good morning.’ [Same] for me with him. I cannot lie to him. I cannot hide anything from him.”

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