Having opened last year’s Venice Film Festival, Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) arrives in German kinos. His 22nd feature follows two single women – photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) and teen Ana (Milena Smit) – who meet in a hospital room where they are both about to give birth, an encounter that will change their lives and the way they confront motherhood.
The film starts off well and continues throughout to deal with the trauma of loss in a genuinely heartfelt way. However, the domestic drama developments (which shall not be spoiled here) gradually become a bit too telenovela. Adding to this sense of heavy-handedness is the fact that Parallel Mothers is the Spanish maestro’s most political film to date, and convolutedly so: he draws a parallel between the fates of the mothers and the lingering scars of the Spanish civil war, though the two thematic lines never convincingly mesh. It eventually does come together as a perfectly watchable but maladroit melodrama, one worth watching for the performances alone, with Penélope Cruz having won the coveted Volpi Cup for Best Actress. It’s just a shame that the film feels like Almodóvar doing Almodóvar, without the risk-taking that made some of his earlier films or 2011’s La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In) such cinematic electroshocks.
In this respect, Parallel Mothers’ thematic sibling deals with the knotty realities of motherhood and the anxieties of being a parent in a far more daring and memorable way. Lamb is the debut film by Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson, and what a strong calling card it is. (Warning: what follows does contain one spoiler.)
Lamb sees a couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), running a sheep farm in a remote Icelandic valley. A past trauma linked to the loss of a child is suggested and the couple don’t hesitate when an unexpected birth occurs in the sheep stalls. And they don’t seem to mind when the child is woollier than your average bundle of joy…
What unfolds is a strange and moody beast, whose tone can be best encapsulated in the film’s central focus-point: the hybrid baby named Ada. The ruminant-humanoid sprog is both weirdly cute and very unsettling, and Jóhannsson wisely never clarifies which one; in entertaining both possible reactions, he creates a fable that walks a tightrope between atmospheric body-horror inflected chiller and deadpan comedy. He looks to folklore and makes the most of the Icelandic landscape to heighten the themes of parenthood, love and nature versus nurture, wrapping these musings in an oddly tense mist that never envelops his film too tightly within the horror genre.
It’s a deft – and frequently spine-tingling – balancing act that benefits in no small part from a parallel to merrily obsess over regarding some shared DNA with the face-melting 2021 Cannes winner, Titane: both Jóhannsson and Julia Ducournau’s films deal with post-humanist splicing within a family context. No matter how warped it may seem, the child hybrid in both films can be seen to represent not only a new vision of what unconditional familial love and acceptance can be, but also a crossbred symbol of hope. It’s a fascinating watch. Long live the new woolly flesh!
Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) ⭑⭑⭑ Starts January 06 D: Pedro Almodóvar (Spain, 2021), with Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit. | Lamb ⭑⭑⭑⭑ Starts January 06 D: Valdimar Jóhannsson (Iceland, 2021), with Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason.