“World-building” usually refers to how the makers of science fiction and fantasy construct their domains, populating them with imaginary creatures and allegorical meanings. But among living filmmakers, the most prodigious world builder might be Pedro Almodóvar. Plenty of directors have a style. Almodóvar conjures a cosmos — a domain of bright colors, piercing music (often by Alberto Iglesias) and swirling melodrama. If you’ve visited in the past, you will be eager to return.
This isn’t to say that Almodóvaria, as I sometimes think of it, is a realm entirely apart from the drab planet where most of us live. It’s a version of Spain (most of the time), informed by that country’s aesthetic and literary traditions, a legacy that encompasses the perverse whimsy of Surrealism and the openhearted pathos of flamenco. “Parallel Mothers,” Almodóvar’s new feature, adds an element that he had previously avoided: the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the nearly 40 years of dictatorship that followed.
At first, the war seems like an unlikely, poignant entry point into a uniquely Almodóvarian swirl of present-day romantic complication and domestic anguish. Janis (Penélope Cruz, never better) is a photographer shooting a very handsome forensic anthropologist for a magazine spread. His name is Arturo (Israel Elejalde), and his grim specialty is examining the remains of Franco’s victims, many of whom were buried in unmarked mass graves. One of those graves is in Janis’s hometown. Her great-grandfather was part of a group of men taken from their homes early in the war and never seen again. She asks Arturo if he can help in the investigation.
He offers to do what he can, and then he and Janis sleep together. She gets pregnant — he is married — and decides to raise their child on her own. All of this happens quickly, and seems like a complicated narrative mechanism designed to introduce Janis to Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager she meets in the maternity ward. Almost simultaneously, they give birth to girls and promise to keep in touch.
Their relationship will pass through friendship, love, devastating loss, deceit and despair. The central plot of “Parallel Mothers” is vintage Almodóvar: a skein of reversals, revelations, surprises and coincidences unraveled with style, wit and feeling. The contrasts of background and temperament between Janis and Ana provide the dominant tones. Janis, the child of a hippie mother (who named her after Janis Joplin), was raised by her grandmother. She has grown up to be a practical, independent Madrileña, warmhearted but unsentimental. Her best friend is an elegant magazine editor played by Rossy de Palma, a statuesque avatar of Almodóvarismo in its purest essence.
Ana is the child of an (unseen) father, who lives in Granada, and a mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), caught up in her acting career. In spite of Ana’s unhappy circumstances (her pregnancy is the result of rape), an aura of privilege clings to her family. Teresa, the kind of woman who might have been the heroine of an earlier Almodóvar picture — he is often drawn to theater, and to the toughness and vulnerability of actresses — is something of a villain here, an entitled narcissist who can’t fully acknowledge the reality of her daughter’s experiences.
Janis doesn’t exactly replace Teresa in Ana’s life. She has her own problems to confront, some of which resemble Ana’s, some of which put them in conflict with each other. “Parallel Mothers,” in effect, critiques its own title. The two characters mirror each other in some ways, but nobody’s story moves in a straight line. Entanglement is unavoidable. Almodóvarian geometry is hyperbolic, non-Euclidean, kinked and convoluted.
But Almodóvar’s art is also characterized by emotional precision and moral clarity. What happens to Ana and Janis isn’t just a matter of accident or narrative artifice; there is a political dimension to their relationship that is the key to the film’s structure.
When Arturo comes back into the picture, he brings a reminder of unfinished historical business. If, at first, the horror of the past had seemed like the scaffolding for a modern story, the final sections of “Parallel Mothers” suggest the opposite. Injustice festers across generations. The failure to confront it casts a persistent, ugly shadow.
That shadow is a new element in Almodóvar’s imagined universe, and it challenges some of his artistic assumptions. A reality as stark, as brutal, as unresolved as the fascist terror that dominated Spain in the middle decades of the 20th century doesn’t fit comfortably within his elegant frames and melodramatic conceits. That may be the point of “Parallel Mothers,” and the rawness of its final scenes is a measure of its accomplishment. We build new worlds to understand the one we’re in.
Rated R. Sex, violence, tragedy. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In theaters.