Guided by exceptional performances from the film's mostly female cast, this melodrama from Spanish maestro Pedro Almódovar blends many of his usual touchstones with a distinct social justice message.
Cruz is hypnotic as Janis in Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas). Some aspects of her look and the setting/set design, characterized by the director's usual red-led primary tones, are reminiscent of other performances she's given for him, including 2019's Pain and Glory and 2006's Volver.
But this time Cruz is largely understated as a woman who uncovers a deeply painful truth and has to muster the courage to face it. Her story is paralleled by another involving the excavation of a Civil War-era mass grave, part of a political and social movement in Spain to reconcile, rather than ignore, harrowing historical facts.
In typical Almodóvar fashion, several narrative strands merge together, though a couple of scenes in the film's climax (especially one in which Cruz lectures her young lover about Spanish history) feel overly scripted.
As usual, the director wraps the story around a support network of female characters. For good measure, he puts Cruz in a "We should all be feminists" T-shirt and gives her a romantic relationship with youthful co-star Smit. Aitana Sánchez Gijón is also memorable in her role as a remorseful mother; she delivers a riveting monologue straight to camera in a scene involving a play rehearsal.
This homage to the theater is just one of many directorial trademarks that Almodóvar fans will appreciate. Madrid is also on glorious display, as are Spanish cuisine staples like the tortilla de patatas -- Almodóvar certainly knows how to package his country, but he doesn't let its many contradictions off the hook.
Read the full review at Common Sense Media.