Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s gorgeous, haunted and excellent film “Parallel Mothers” begins as Janis (Penelope Cruz) has affair with a married forensic anthropologist, which lands her in the hospital maternity ward. There the high-end Madrid magazine photographer, who’s nearing 40, befriends a teen mom-to-be named Ana (Milena Smit). Ana is estranged from her actress mom who chose career over her daughter. Janis aims to have both. Ana gives herself over to motherhood.

The friendship of the single new moms ratchets up in a series of increasingly tense complications and revelations—questions of paternity, rape, a sudden devastating death, romances (I can’t say much more without spoiling the twists)—that make plain Almodóvar’s deep and abiding love of soap opera melodrama.

Cruz’s intimate expressiveness and the music by Alberto Iglesias make everything feel emotionally on edge—to the point that when Janis is chopping carrots after receiving terrible news it feels like might turn into a slasher flick. In the past, Almodóvar might have turned it into slapstick as well. Instead Almodóvar plays this story realistically, the emotions and losses feel deep and earned and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s a story about the bonds of mothers and daughters, of friends and lovers, of the families we make. And Almodóvar manages to land a complicated but happy ending, full of love.

Remember the forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde)? At the beginning Janis had enlisted his help to uncover the mass grave where fascists murdered her great-grandfather and other men of her childhood hometown during the rise of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (who’s never actually mentioned in the movie). At the film’s end, the narrative comes back around to this and it feels almost like a different movie—a good, but brief one about families shattered by political murders and the generations of wives and daughters of the disappeared carrying that loss.

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"Parallel Mothers" starring Milena Smit (left) and Penélope Cruz. (Sony Pictures)
“Parallel Mothers” starring Milena Smit (left) and Penélope Cruz. (Sony Pictures)
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