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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Parallel Mothers, Review: Swapped babies and a Spanish history lesson from the Master

Parallel Mothers, Review: Swapped babies and a Spanish history lesson from the Master

Expectations suddenly rise when the name Pedro Almodóvar is mentioned. One regrets having missed the screening at IFFI, November 2021, but then Impact Films, Mumbai, of Ashwani Sharma, acquires distribution rights of Parallel Mothers, for India, and holds a press screening at Soho, in Juhu, Bombay, a small but exotic theatre, fixes its release on 11 March 2022, and invites you to catch-up on what you missed out in Goa! Parallel Mothers is not Almodóvar at his masterly best, and yet turns out to be slick and watchable. Now 72, he has made such notable features as All About My Mother and Bad Education. Parallel Mothers is in the running for the Oscars, being nominated for Best Actress (Penélope Cruz) and Best Music (Alberto Iglesias). But are the high expectations met? Read on.

Two women, Janis, who is pushing 40, and Ana, barely 18, are pregnant. Janis, a photographer, has willingly had unprotected sex with an archaeologist-excavator, Arturo, who is one of her subjects, and finds herself carrying his baby. Ana got pregnant after a drinking binge with school classmates, with as many as four of them taking turns at her. When they are in an advanced state of pregnancy, they both get admitted to the same maternity hospital, where, co-incidentally, they share a room. Ana is regretting the pregnancy, while Janis feels that it is about time she had a baby, though the couple have agreed on a no strings attached arrangement. Janis tries to encourage the depressed Ana, while they move about like sleepwalkers along the hospital’s corridors. The few words they exchange in these hours create a very close link between the two, which by chance, develops, complicates, and changes their lives.

Both give birth almost simultaneously, to baby girls. Ana’s mother, an aspiring actress who has separated from her husband, visits her in hospital. Again co-incidentally, both babies are born with conditions that require close monitoring and are kept under observation, away from their mothers, for some time. Continuing her professional activities as a reputed still photographer of people and objects, Janis, who dotes on her baby, also uses the services of a maid and a baby-sitter. She loses contact with Ana, but Arturo visits her shortly after she has given birth. Initially excited, his enthusiasm cools off suddenly. Janis visits him at the hotel where he is staying and asks him what happened. He replies, frankly, “I do not think the girl is my baby. She does not look like me at all.” This complicates things, as Janis has persuaded Arturo to dig out a mass grave where her father was shot and buried, by the politically oppressive Franco regime of Spain. Excavation is a complex operation that requires funds and skilled manpower, though the high-flying Arturo has offered his own services free to his girl-friend. The denial that the baby is his might adversely affect the arrangement about the excavation. But she has not slept with anybody around the period when she met Arturo. Nevertheless, Janis begins to get suspicious. If Arturo is not the baby’s father, she may not be his mother. So, who then is the mother? Is there a parallel mother?

In many ways, Pedro Almodóvar Caballero’s script is a history lesson, sugar-coated with sex without commitment, teenage sex with multiple partners after a drinking binge, lesbianism (Almodóvar is gay!), fashion, glamour photography, bars, cafés and the lot. Take Janis, for example. She has a baby of her own. Then we have her story. Add to that the generation of her parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents. While Almodóvar does not overtly pontificate about social mores over the years, he is quite clear about his indictment of dictatorial regimes, taking the example he knows best - that of his native Spain’s Francisco Franco to make his point. Franco (December 4, 1892 – November 20, 1975) was a general who ruled over Spain as a dictator for 36 years, from 1939, until his death. Francoism professed a strong devotion to militarism, hyper-masculinity, and the traditional role of women in society. A woman was to be loving to her parents and brothers and faithful to her husband, and reside with her family. Official propaganda confined women’s roles to family care and motherhood. Most progressive laws passed by the Second Republic were declared void. Women could not become judges, testify in trial, or become university professors.

With the 1936 elections, the conservative Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Right-wing Groups lost by a narrow margin and the leftist Popular Front came to power. Intending to overthrow the republic, Franco followed other generals in attempting a failed coup that precipitated the Spanish Civil War. Leaving half a million dead, the war was eventually won by Franco, in 1939. With the death of the other generals, Franco quickly became his faction’s only leader. His ideology was called Falangism. In 1947, he declared Spain a monarchy, with himself as regent. Franco’s regime committed a series of violent human rights abuses against the Spanish people, which included the establishment of concentration camps and the use of forced labor and executions, mostly against political and ideological enemies, causing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 deaths in more than 190 concentration camps. In the film, one such victim was Janis’s grand-father.

Unless you do this bit of reading, you will not be able to grasp the symbolism and the metaphors that run throughout the film, and the entire track about the excavation and exhumation. That might be a tough ask to the lay movie-goer. For most Indians, swapping of babies at birth, of babies being stolen at birth, are age-old tropes. Two headlines from 2018 news stories are worth quoting here:

‘Indian Babies Accidently Switched at Birth’ Babies being switched birth may sound out of the script of a Bollywood masala film, but that is exactly what happened in a hospital in rural ...’

‘India's switched-at-birth babies who refused to swap back’ It is like the plot of a Bollywood film. First, two babies are born within minutes of each other and then accidentally switched at birth…’

A large part of Parallel Mothers’ screen-time is taken by the issues revolving around the babies, and what happens to them, with Almodóvar's melodrama to the fore. It is just unfortunate that we, in India, have had our share of Manmohan Desai, Nasir Hussain, and other directors, who had made baby-swapping and separation a formula, with another variation on the theme: twins or triplets or two or three children separated from the parents, or from each other, at birth, or at a young age. Those of us who go see the film with a mind-set that has these examples to the fore will end up misconstruing the film altogether. And yet, should we blame them for being treated to a surface narrative that seems so familiar to them?

Look out for the heart-warming tight close-ups of the mothers and their babies in their arms, Enjoy the little details like when one woman writes her phone number on a big blank page of a diary and gives it to the other, who immediately tears the lower half, writes her number, and completes the exchange. Enjoy lines like, "All actors these days are leftists," and the message on Janis' T-shirt, "We should all be feminists". Enjoy the exquisitely crafted photo-shoot sessions, and ignore the magnifying glass that Janis uses to check the details of her photo-prints, in an age when photo-paper is passé. It might help to remember that Almodóvar wrote the first draft of Parallel Mothers at least 13 years ago.

Note that Janis is named after singer Janis Joplin, and listen to her singing in the background, even as Ana asks, “Who is Janis Joplin?” Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943, Joplin was a self-described “misfit” in high school, she suffered virtual ostracism, but dabbled in folk music with her friends and painted. She briefly attended college in Beaumont and Austin but was more drawn to blues legends and beat poetry than her studies; soon she dropped out and, in 1963, headed for San Francisco, eventually finding herself in the notoriously drug-fuelled Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Her albums include Big Brother and the Holding Company, Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama. Joplin died in 1970. And above all, enjoy the sonorous background music of Alberto Iglesias, about which I have only one comment: there is too much of it.

Starring in successive films of Almodóvar on three occasions, this is the seventh pairing of Penélope Cruz Sánchez with the veteran director. Antonio Banderas has eight! Probably 45 when she worked in this film, she continues to exude radiance. Known for Vanilla Sky, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Murder on the Orient Express, she won Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Volver (2006) and Nine (2009). She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2008, for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She is the first and only Spanish actress to be nominated for and to win an Academy Award, as well as the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This role demands a range of complex emotions, and she goes through them with aplomb. The Oscar nomination may be justified, but it will all depend upon the competition. Getting second billing is 25 year-old Milena Smit (Elisa Milena Smit Márquez) as Ana, who made her acting debut only two years ago, and has to undergo a complete physical transformation in the second half of the film. Her brave performance is overshadowed by the star in Cruz. Both Cruz and Smit are models, besides being actors.

Israel Elejalde as Arturo is well cast, looking his part, and managing to stay within the dignity of his character even when exhibiting some shades of grey. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, who is cast as Teresa Ferreras, Ana’s mother, with her desire to pursue an independent career as a theatre actress, even if she has to fudge her own unfaithfulness as a ground for divorce, is convincing. Competent support is provided by Julieta Serrano as Brígida, Rossy de Palma as Elena and Ainhoa Santamaría as the Babysitter, whose priorities are elsewhere. Cinematography by José Luis Alcaine creates the ‘film’ effect and editing by Teresa Font often uses the match-cut to perfection. Perhaps the film could have been 10-15 minutes shorter than its present two hours’ duration. It is a highly verbose film. In India, it has been certified for exhibition to Adults only, possibly with some cuts in the love-making scenes.

Cinematically aware audiences will be stunned by the ending, and will, for those few moments, forget the film’s earlier narrative. Looking back, one finds the film a bit scattered and trying to tackle too many themes. Yet, I would recommend Parallel Mothers to film-buffs in general, for even if Almodóvar is not at his best, he is still Almodóvar.

Rating: *** 1/2


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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