Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers is an assembly of recurring themes and returning actors and technicians. Almodovar reunites with the actors Penelope Cruz and Rossy de Palma, cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine and production designer Antxon Gomez for a film about the collision between sexual desire and historical memory.

Fashion photographer Janis (Penelope Cruz) commissions the archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) to dig up a mass grave in her village that holds the remains of opponents to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Janis’s involvement with Arturo soon goes beyond the professional.

Janis gets pregnant after an affair with Arturo. In the hospital where Janis delivers her baby, she meets the teenager Ana (Milena Smit). The parallel lives of the women – both mothers of daughters born on the same day – intersect after a personal tragedy.

Nestled in the colour-coded folds of a typical Almodovaresque melodrama is a faintly visible allegory of Spanish colonialism in South America and authoritarian rule. Almodovar’s early films examined repression in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from the 1930s to the 1970s. Parallel Mothers is more overtly political than some of Almodovar’s recent works, but just about.

The film resonates most strongly as an exploration of the fluid relationships between men and women and women and women. Janis’s evolving bond with Ana unfolds against expressionist sets and through intimate close-ups. Precise compositions creates mirror images of Janis and Ana, women united by their maternal instinct but threatened by a secret.

While Milena Smit does a fine job as Ana, the film belongs to Penelope Cruz’s marvellously expressive face and controlled performance. Almodovar has given Cruz some of her best roles. In Parallel Mothers, she returns the favour in full.

Parallel Mothers (2021).