“Do you want the skulls now?” An obviously morbid question and one that, as writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” takes shape, just barely taps on the fourth wall. For Janis (Penélope Cruz), a well-respected photographer currently shooting Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an archaeologist whose work focuses on the thousands killed under the regime of Francisco Franco, it’s an innocent question about props. She waves off the assistant with, “I don’t know. I’ll tell you later.” In other words, she’s distracted by the man in front of her.
Arturo situates Janis’s interests as an analogy for those of “Parallel Mothers.” It’s a film about passion and legacy: They intertwine, first, when Janis’s curtains billow out the window after she brings Arturo home, and in a cut to nine months later, as Janis delivers her child. There’s a catch. Janis has a roommate in the ward, Ana (Milena Smit). They are in fact parallel mothers, yet the late adolescent Ana regrets her pregnancy while Janis is delighted.
The ensuing story finds the women, linked by their labors, shunted to the forefront. Arturo makes brief entrances, but he and Janis agree that she would raise the child on her own. His departure takes a subplot about a mass grave in Janis’ hometown — a grave with a history curated by maternal denizens over the decades — with him. Or does it? Upon first glance, Almodóvar’s interest in Spain’s history can seem superficial. A cynic might posit that Almodóvar’s story is a thin apology for avoiding Spain’s legacy up until now, yet his film maintains thematic synchronicities between generations.
His story is dense, but his style is light on its feet. Almodóvar inserts flashbacks without warning, transitions with flourish, plates of gorgeous food and picks, among the rest of his characteristically vibrant palette, rich reds. They’re light details, but look at the way a blood-red outfit shades Ana’s mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who declares that actresses such as herself are “apolitical” — as if a little apoliticism never spilled any blood. It’s the sort of story that fusses for a bit, true to Janis’s own difficulty getting her bearings with a newborn, and eventually fuses with a slick director. A few twists best not spoiled have made Janis and Ana housemates, and Janis decides Ana needs to learn what her mother ignores.
Almodóvar’s political teachings are never divorced from their humanity, even if they’re banging you over the head. Much of this has to do with Cruz, who takes more interest in the personal than the political. Even when she reprimands Ana’s ignorance, her character is jagged with the hurt that motivates her activism from scene one. When Janis pulls Arturo aside at the beginning, asking if he might excavate the grave, the diplomatic way Cruz carries herself suggests the others who have waited lifetimes to bury their husbands, fathers or siblings.
This all sounds very serious, but remember this is the director who brought us “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a raucous slam of slapstick and outrage. Janis’s editor Elena (Rossy de Palma) is cut from the same cloth as Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, if she was warm and homey; the domestic help lends Janis’s apartment the breeze of a chamber comedy. Farce is easy to imagine, but Almodóvar’s intervening dialogue — often the lines with the most direct connection to womanhood — verge on gumminess. Some scenes display a faux self-awareness; a sex scene set to the tune of a screaming guitar, and it can seem like things are getting out of the director’s hands.
If it seems like there are excesses in “Parallel Mothers,” it’s because there are. It’s a film constructed in parallels, where Janis and Ana’s story is meant to pale alongside the greater story. At times, it feels like Almodóvar struggles to strike the right balance, to sew the divides in his story together. And yet as it comes to a close, “Parallel Mothers” can barely contain the bonds between Janis and the past that fill it. They stretch the film at the seams, they demand attention. There’s superfluity here, but also rich reconstructions of the past and why it matters.