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Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit bond over a tortilla española in "Parallel Mothers."

They didn’t screen Parallel Mothers for us critics here in time for awards season. Why, I can’t fathom. It’s not as if Pedro Almodóvar or Penélope Cruz are obscure to moviegoers. Their Spanish drama would probably have been on the bubble of making the honorable mention section of my Top 10 list, because the movie has a number of loose ends hanging prominently, but Cruz’ performance definitely would have made my list of best actors. You can see it now as it opens at various theaters in Tarrant County.

Cruz portrays Janis Martínez, a successful fashion photographer in Madrid who unexpectedly discovers that she’s pregnant with her first child by a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). While preparing to deliver the baby, she strikes up a friendship with Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager who’s sharing her room in the maternity ward and doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. After both mothers give birth to girls, the constant chatter around Janis that her daughter is too dark-skinned — Arturo bluntly tells her that he doesn’t think the baby is his — leads her to take a DNA test, and a genetics lab informs her that she is not the child’s mother.

There are more plot twists after that one, and they add up to make Almodóvar’s soapiest film. That seems like a strange thing to say, since all of his movies are influenced to some degree by Spanish-language telenovelas. The twists stem from Janis’ curious decision to not tell anyone about the lab results, and to hire Ana as a live-in nanny to take care of Janis’ daughter, whom Ana doesn’t know is actually her own. The cross-cutting between the two mothers’ lives would make for great tension, so it’s somewhat puzzling that Almodóvar introduces other plotlines such as Ana’s mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) being absent for long stretches because her acting career is finally taking off, even if it gives this actress a chance to deliver a monologue by Federico García Lorca — Almodóvar does love his high-culture references. Similarly, a key twist in the relationship between Janis and Ana is left frustratingly unresolved.

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It’s worth any amount of extraneous material, though, to see the extended climactic scene when Janis finally comes clean to Ana, and waves of shame and grief come crashing over her. Cruz has consistently done her best acting for this director, and her work here playing someone coping with the prospect of seeing her only chance at parenthood slip away is on a par with that other tormented mother she played in Volver.

One other plotline has Arturo directing the exhumation of a mass grave where Janis’ grandfather and a bunch of other people were buried after being executed by a fascist death squad during the Spanish civil war. This is another loose end, but it is fascinating in itself. Parallel Mothers ends with the corpses being raised and a quote from Eduardo Galeano about how history rears its head despite people’s best efforts to bury it. Let the late, great Uruguayan journalist sound that warning to all the apologists who want to hide our nation’s white supremacist past from our children. Someone is coming to dig up your ancestor’s actions, and yours too.

Parallel Mothers
Starring Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Rated R.

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