Greetings again from the darkness. As a devoted follower of films by Almodovar for more than 35 years, I still find myself enchanted by his stories, his visuals, his characters, and his consistency in writing complex and engaging parts for women. Oscar winning writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s last film, PAIN AND GLORY (2019) may be considered his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, but this latest proves he still has much to say, and will do so with his customary flair.
I often write about a filmmaker ‘delivering’ a film, and in this case, Almodovar literally serves up dueling deliveries in the maternity ward. The births are edited for a bit of comedic relief, but the sequence also makes the all-important point about the connection between the two mothers. Oscar winner Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a woman pushing 40 who has a fling with married Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He’s the forensic archeologist working on the project to excavate a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War rumored to hold the remains of relatives of Janis, as well as others from the community.
While awaiting the birth of her child, Janis meets her roommate Ana (a terrific Milena Smit), a 17-year-old who is much less thrilled than Janis at the thought of becoming a mother. The two women of different ages, different attitudes, and different, yet similar, situations give birth on the same day at the same time – each becoming a single mother. The exhausted women have no clue of what is to cause their lives to become intertwined and push the story forward. While in recovery, we are introduced to each women’s support. Janis’ lifelong friend Elena (played by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma) bursts into the room (and onto the screen) in a flash of color and smile. On the other side, Ana’s narcissist mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) immediately begins recounting her latest audition, which could lead to the big break in her acting career. As an afterthought, she then asks about the babies. We learn so much in these few minutes.
This becomes the story of the two women and their babies, yet always hovering is a story about the history of the country, and the families affected by the Spanish Civil War atrocities. The story structure isn’t seamless, but then neither is life … especially of those impacted. Past and present have unbreakable links, as do the generations of strong females who carried on. As Janis pursues the archaeological dig, we contrast that with the self-centered Teresa who states, “I’m apolitical. My job is to please everyone.” Of course, by the end, Janis, Ana, and Teresa have all grown as people after facing morally challenging dilemmas.
This is Penelope Cruz’s 8th Almodovar film, and, to no one’s surprise, she excels in the role of Janis. It’s unfortunate that very few actors receive Oscar recognition for Foreign Language films because her work stands with that of any actor this year. Almodovar is a master, and proves time and again that melodrama is not a taboo approach to storytelling when handled properly. On display throughout is his trademark use of color – in clothes, cars, art, and yes, the hospital room. Even his closing credits are stylish. Frequent Almodovar collaborators include Production designer Antxon Gomez, composer Alberto Iglesias (heavy on the strings), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine … and what a team they make. The film can be viewed as a tribute to (and reminder of) the history of Almodovar’s beloved Spain. He even includes a fitting quote, “History refuses to shut its mouth”, something he works to ensure.
Opens in select theaters on January 14, 2022