After an introspective detour with 2019’s semi-autobiographical Pain & Glory, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar is back with another sweeping melodrama. All the wonderfully far-fetched plot contrivances and breathless confessions one has come to expect from the filmmaker can be found in his latest, Parallel Mothers, not to mention an expectedly radiant Penélope Cruz, who is always at her best when working with Almodóvar. Newcomers to the director will likely be impressed by how the movie grounds absurd soap-opera theatrics with moving performances and patient storytelling, but Parallel Mothers never manages to hit the emotional highs of his strongest efforts despite covering similar thematic territory. 

Janis Martinez (Cruz) is a single fashion photographer who enlists the help of a handsome, married archeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) to excavate an unmarked grave containing the remains of her great-grandfather and other soldiers who were killed in the Spanish Civil War. Janis and Arturo’s working relationship quickly escalates into a sexual tryst, and an abrupt smash cut shows Janis pacing in a hospital room nine months later waiting to go into labor. In the same ward, in the adjacent bed, lies another single mother, Ana (Milena Smit), and the two form a bond over their shared circumstances. 

Much of the pleasures of Parallel Mothers comes in discovering its many narrative twists and revelations, so just how Janis and Ana’s stories eventually intertwine is best left for viewers to learn on their own. However, therein also lies Parallel Mothers’ most glaring weakness. The movie’s first hour is a gorgeous portrait of maternal resiliency, gracefully brought to life by Cruz, but in an atypical move for an Almodóvar joint, the soap-opera pivots of the third act seem at odds with the gentle character drama that preceded it.   

Take, for example, an early flashback sequence in which Janis and Arturo argue over how to proceed with her new pregnancy. Arturo, whose wife is undergoing chemotherapy, pleads with Janis to terminate. Janis, on the other hand, reacts with a ferocity previously unseen from the character’s otherwise soft-spoken nature. Motherhood brings out an almost animal-like protectiveness in Janis, and Cruz continually balances those primal instincts with the vulnerability of a single woman forced into a crash course on raising a child. It’s a well-worn character arc at this point, but Cruz and Almodóvar bring it to life with enthralling nuance. 

So it’s ironic that Almodóvar, whose most memorable films trafficked in high-stakes melodrama, occasionally feels like he’s on autopilot once Parallel Mothers turns into an exercise in just that. It’s simply that the more understated first half feels as emotionally potent as anything he’s ever done, and once the plot kicks into gear, much of the character work takes a backseat to convoluted explanations and reveals. Bookending shots of the unmarked grave from the Spanish Civil War also strives for a cultural resonance lost on this reviewer (whose lack of knowledge on Spain’s history may mostly be to blame in that particular case). 

Any faults to be found in Parallel Mothers are relatively minor gripes, of course. Almodóvar doesn’t make bad films, and this is still a quite good one. But for a movie rumored to have been gestating in the director’s mind for two decades, this feels more like an enjoyable B-side to past, greater works.