The film's protagonists, photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) and anxious adolescent Ana (Milena Smit), meet for the first time on a maternity ward in Madrid. Janis and Ana coincide in a hospital room where they're going to give birth. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Though they share the trait of being single mothers, their journeys up to this moment have been incredibly different. Janis, middle-aged, doesn’t regret it and she's exultant. She's a mature woman, the latter barely grew out of her teenage years. The other, Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant and traumatized. Janis tries to encourage her while they move like sleepwalkers along the hospital corridors. Janis knows she will be fine, Ana is extremely doubtful about the future. The few words they exchange in these hours will create a very close link between the two, which by chance develops and complicates, and changes their lives in a decisive way. A few words create a strong link that connects them beyond their differences. It may seem their paths will cross only for a moment, yet their bond will become as strong as an umbilical cord. The encounter has a transformative effect that thrusts the two mothers into a life-changing odyssey, sending them down a rabbit hole of secrets that calls into question the fabric of family, legacy, and memory.
The film starts with Janis looking for the means to open a mass grave containing the body of her great-grandfather, murdered in the 'Spanish Civil War' by Franco’s fascist nationalist party, and ends three years later with the opening of the grave. In between, the relationship of three women who meet in a hospital room before two of them give birth. Janis, middle-aged, excited about the birth; Ana, an adolescent scared and traumatized by her imminent maternity; and Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Ana’s mother. When they're alone, Janis tries to infect Ana with her delight and enthusiasm. Both got pregnant by accident and both will be single mothers. When Janis tells her that, 'she has no regrets', Ana confesses that she does regret it, months later she will explain to her why. "Parallel Mothers" talks about ancestors and descendants. About the truth of the historical past and the most intimate truth of the characters. It talks about identity and maternal passion through three very different mothers; Janis, Ana and Ana’s mother, a selfish mother, without any maternal instinct, as she herself confesses. It’s the imperfections of those mothers that attract us most.
They're very different mothers from those who've appeared in Almodóvar's filmography to date. Due to strange circumstances, Janis is forced to live in total contradiction between the historical truth, her great-grandfather buried in a mass grave, and her more intimate truth, as regards her daughter. Her moral dilemma is the center of the story, which makes Janis a complex, generous, contradictory and even mean-spirited character. She's a very difficult and painful character because she always has more than one face, until her sense of guilt and the shame provoked in her by the lie which she's living make her explode. Even though all these elements belong to the melodrama genre, from the script and in the mise-en-scène, "Parallel Mothers" is a tense, contained drama, with a protagonist who perhaps is not a role model. The result is splendid. The purity and innocence of her Ana accentuate the darker parts of Janis. At the end, they will all form part of a diverse and unexpected family.
"Parallel Mothers" is not only a bittersweet, intimate tale of the pain and the brilliance of motherhood. It's also a voice against keeping family secrets as well as burying the secrets of the past. A random encounter may change one's destiny for ever and a coincidental family may become more important than the biological one. It's precisely women who build bridges between the past and the future that provide people with closure and catharsis. A boisterous, moving ode to women, "Parallel Mothers" takes it's place within a bold color palette and careening plot twists that border on comic, yet stands memorably on it's own. "Parallel Mothers is an examination of motherhood and the ways in which history frames our experience.