Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film with Penelope Cruz mixes personal drama and political commentary in a warm, empathetic, twist-laden story about two very different single mothers.
I’ve always liked Penelope Cruz, but I think it’s fair to say that she shines brightest when she works with the Spanish film maestro, who seems to know best how to bring out all of her talent, beauty and charisma. In their eighth film together, she’s radiant and earthy as Janis, a stylish and accomplished photographer in her late 30s who becomes pregnant after a fling with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome forensic archaeologist.
Janis’ roommate at the hospital is Ana (Milena Smit), a serious-eyed 17-year-old who is not quite as thrilled about becoming an accidental mother as Janis. It’s also obvious that Ana doesn’t have much in the way of emotional support at this difficult and vulnerable time in her life, with her father in a different city and an actress mother who seems more interested in her audition for a stage play.
The two women, who end up giving birth on the same day, bond over their decision to do it alone, and the new emotions of motherhood. It wouldn’t be fair to elaborate further and spoil the dramatic turns Janis and Ana’s relationship takes after they leave the hospital, but though I didn’t see it coming it’s certainly the kind of extreme, full-blown drama you’d expect to see in an Almodóvar film.
Far more unexpected was the social commentary on the lingering wounds of the Spanish Civil War, which is hinted on at the beginning and comes through the snippets of conversations during the film, then springs into the full devastating focus at the very end. You’d be forgiven for assuming that Arturo’s uncommon profession is just an excuse to bring him and Janis further together, but there’s a sombre core to their connection. Arturo’s foundation works on tracing people murdered and buried in unmarked mass graves during the war; Janis’ great-grandfather was one such victim and she asks Arturo to help excavate the grave in her home village.
To be honest I wasn’t sure if this transition from personal to political was hundred percent successful and smooth, but you can see why Almodóvar would want to approach this big subject the way he did, through a more intimate story about the two single mothers and their friendship. Luckily he has two wonderful players, whose palpable connection and grounded performances make sure that the movie, with its extreme highs and lows that on paper would be at home in a trashiest soap, never becomes too campy. I’ve already praised Cruz, but Smit is also fantastic in a more low-key, restrained role as Ana. The movie even shows generosity to Ana’s mother and her own story, giving her space to be more than a horrible narcissistic parent she appears at first.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a new Almodóvar film, or any distinctly European film for that matter, and I really enjoyed being reminded of the Spanish master’s particular playfulness, rhythms and quirks (and the glorious, vibrant, rich colours everywhere, even in a sterile maternity ward! I wish I was bold enough to make my own flat as much of a primary colour heaven as Janis’ apartment).
P.S. The generation gap between Janis and Ana, and the difference it makes in their understanding of the civil war, made me wonder about a possible similar gap between myself and the Russian teenagers of today, for whom the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 is likely a thing of the distant past. I’m separated from the war by two generations, but I simply can’t overstate the huge, massive shadow it still cast when I was growing up, with all the media around me – TV, radio plays, books, films – saturated with war stories to the max.
P.P.S. The Palace cinema we went to wasn’t exactly deserted, but it definitely had a sad empty air to it; the pandemic is still hammering them hard.