Parallel Mothers (NYFF59)

3 Notable Films of the 2021 New York Film Festival

Films thrill us with every emotion imaginable. We look at three notable films of NYFF59: Parallel Mothers, Unclenching the Fist and Hit the Road.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is still raging across much of the world, but the worldwide film festival scene is not just still going on, it’s attempting to return to some level of “normalcy”. The New York Film Festival, for example, kept its screenings as events, albeit ones with new protocols to respond to the global health crisis. Even with these tweaks in place, this dedication to pulling off a traditional version of this event meant that, once again, film journalists and film fans alike descended on the Big Apple to partake of highly-anticipated movies from around the globe.

Yours truly couldn’t make it to New York this year, but I did manage to receive a handful of digital screeners of features that played at the festival. To watch these new movies, as well as being cognizant of the real festival going on for three weekends, filled me with a sense of excitement over how enduring the artform of cinema is. Even in the face of an unprecedented health crisis, new movies endure and so do the time-honored ways of presenting them. Films just keep on going and thrilling the masses with every emotion imaginable. It’s a touching thought to consider after so many months of uncertainty stemming from the pandemic.

With that in mind, let’s look at the three most notable New York Film Festival titles I saw this year, starting with the newest motion picture from a legend of world cinema.

Parallel Mothers

We’re all connected to our past, whether we’re conscious of it or not. By past, I mean everything from the breakfast we nibbled on last week to the actions of our great-great-grandparents. Director Pedro Almodóvar is thoroughly cognizant of the way the past and present are interwoven together with his newest movie. Following up his acclaimed 2019 effort Pain and Glory, this auteur has returned to the silver screen with Parallel Mothers. It’s not his greatest feat as an auteur, but it’s another reminder of the qualities that make him so unique and fascinating as a filmmaker.

Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are two strangers with nothing in common except that they’ve been placed in the same hospital room together when they’re preparing to go into labor. From this moment on, though, their lives become intertwined, with each woman facing unique challenges in carrying out the responsibilities of motherhood. For Janis, it’s her growing concerns over whether or not she’s the mother of her child while Ana is facing all the struggles young single mothers (she’s still a minor when she has her kid) endure.

The concept of the past and present getting tied together is most prominently reflected in Parallel Mothers through a storyline that kicks off the entire movie concerning Janis searching for the unmarked graves where her ancestors from the era of the Spanish Civil War were buried. She’s determined to uncover their bodies and provide them with a proper burial. Janis is pursuing the recovery of her past while also grappling with obstacles in the present stemming from her newborn child, a physical manifestation of the future.

Almodóvar gently wraps all aspects of time together through Parallel Mothers while delicately ensuring that the plot and characters don’t get overwhelmed by this vast scope. 

This is primarily achieved by Almodóvar embracing his trademark melodramatic writing style, which keeps Parallel Mothers light on its toes and constantly delivering something new to the audience. There’s no time to get overwhelmed with the various aspects of life Almodóvar is colliding together when some new bombshell development is just around the corner. The tonal balance of all these disparate elements is certainly messier, especially a closing scene that has a noble message but also feels a little too heavy for what’s preceded it. Primarily, though, Parallel Mothers uses a melodramatic storytelling approach to make its weightier elements go down smoothly.

The actors also prove more than capable of inhabiting such melodramatic confines, especially Almodóvar veteran Penelope Cruz. Having already swum in this filmmaker’s distinct waters so many times before, she infuses her performance with equal parts believability and confidence. Meanwhile, the real star of the production is all the colors! As usual for an Almodóvar movie, bright hues, particularly reds and greens, populate everything from the production design to the costumes to even the tiniest props like a bunch of clothespins. Parallel Mothers has all the visual variety of a bag of Skittles and it’s all the better for it.

Some other visual aspects of the film, such as a handful of strange close-up shots where it distractingly looks like actors are performing in front of a green screen, are less immaculate and do contribute to Parallel Mothers emerging as not quite a masterpiece in the Almodóvar canon. But it’s still a Pedro Almodóvar movie, so prepare for exceptional performances and a downright irresistible color palette. 

Unclenching the Fists

We all grapple with being pulled between the expectations of our family and the expectations we have for each other. Just ask Ada (Milana Aguzarova), who yearns to have her own independent life in the town of North Ossetia. However, she can’t escape the controlling nature of her dad (Alik Karaev) nor societal expectations of how young women should behave. Unclenching the Fists chronicles Ada as she tries to establish her own life beyond her family while also coping with the complexities of finding a new support system as well as the increasingly precarious health condition of her father. 

Director Kira Kovalenko, who also wrote the screenplay with Lyubov Mulmenko and Anton Yarush, doesn’t hold back on the grimness in Unclenching the Fists. Her commitment to realizing a grounded vision of troubled domestic life is reflected in her largely eschewing any wide shots in favor of medium and close-up shots that radiate claustrophobia. Ada is trapped and so is the viewer through Kovalenko’s framing. Largely dim lighting also permeates the proceedings, even in more jovial scenes, like a swimming party that Ada sneaks off to with a potential lover.

The omnipresence of this trait quietly and effectively conveys the notion that Ada won’t be able to escape her deepest issues no matter where she goes.

The wall-to-wall grimness is certainly well-realized and shows a lot of craft on the part of Kovalenko. However, I did find myself yearning for a touch more specific character details to hang onto the gloomy atmosphere. The rampant downbeat vibes are very appropriate for this story but they can get a touch repetitive without more concretely-defined individuals tying everything down. The most memorable sequences in Unclenching the Fists, like a sex scene in a candy store that just emanates awkwardness and discomfort or a pivotal confrontation between father and daughter inside a car, prove so harrowing to watch because they’re inhabited by discernible character details. On the other hand, the most generic moments of the grim vibes make some flaws, like on-the-nose pieces of allegorical imagery, more apparent in how they don’t quite stick the landing.

Even if Unclenching the Fists sometimes succumbs to a more derivative somber atmosphere, at least it’s consistently aided by thoughtful camerawork and some fearless performances.

Milana Aguzarova, in particular, in her first-ever film role, is a revelation portraying Ada. Much of this movie features Ada having to remain silent around the men in her life and Aguzarova uses this quality to flex her facial acting muscles, she can say so much with just the darting of her eyes.

I also like some of the smaller touches in the screenplay, like the dad remaining unnamed. Cinema is littered with movies, like The House That Jack Built, that reduce women to unnamed caricatures who experience endless torment onscreen. How fitting, then, that a movie like Unclenching the Fists, which is also about turmoil specific to women, would reverse this trend by making a male character unnamed. Even if its tone sometimes proved more distant than compelling, those sorts of small details ensure that Unclenching the Fists will leave you with something to talk about. 

Hit the Road

Hit the Road, as you might surmise, is a road trip film. Since it’s all about a family traveling a great length together in one car, you might think you know all the beats of this Panah Panahi directorial effort. But the main characters of this feature, a father (Hassan Madjooni), a mother (Pantea Panahiha), a precocious youngster (Rayan Sarlak), and a twenty-something son (Amin Simiar), are all concealing secrets of some sort or another, as established by an opening scene where Sarlak’s character conceals a cell phone from his parents.

Much more foreboding secrets are boiling underneath the surface of this clan, including the unspoken circumstances in Simiar’s life that have provided the impetus for this trip. Panahi peels back each new layer of the quiet duplicity in these family members to reveal that Hit the Road is chronicling much more than a road trip. It’s chronicling a family in crisis that constantly reverts to acting like there’s nothing wrong.

Despite such a dark concept being at the root of Hit the Road, Panahi makes plenty of time for highly amusing sequences and gags.

These prove extra effective thanks to how they contrast to the form of Hit the Road. Told largely through extended single takes and in naturalistic settings, Panahi’s filmmaking occupies a space that largely isn’t associated with comedic filmmakers (unless they’re named Jacques Tati). So the sudden introduction of dark gags like the family hitting a cyclist or a dog come bouncing up the road while tugging a plastic chair behind him adds an extra layer of comedic intrusion to these gags. 

They’re subverting the storytelling we expect to see through this style of filmmaking, making these humorous moments as unexpected to the viewer as they are to the viewer. Meanwhile, the poignant moments in Panahi’s screenplay are exquisitely executed, especially an authentically rendered riverside conversation between Madjooni and Simiar’s characters. The restrained visual style of Hit the Road proves once again useful in this kind of scene, though for a drastically different reason. Now the subdued camerawork can allow the focus to linger solely on the performances and the quiet character details. Panahi wants us to focus on the familial issues these main characters so often run away from.

The individual characters are also fantastically rendered, Panahi does superb work juggling everyone without letting a member of the family get lost in the shuffle.

I found myself especially fascinated by how Hit the Road works on a different level when viewed through each of the viewpoints of the four principal characters. You don’t need the scope of this film to expand beyond this family getting from one destination to another when the script has delivered such richly detailed individuals to follow. Plus, it’s also fascinating how Panahi doesn’t lean on stereotypical archetypes (the buffoonish dad, the nagging wife, etc.) as substitutes for distinct personalities. Instead, he embraces injecting complex lives to each of Hit the Road’s leads.

Such thoughtful writing gives the main actors in Hit the Road plenty to work with, though, for my money, the best of the leads is Pantea Panahiha. She’s already so interesting throughout the runtime with her little comedic asides and bursts of personality that ensure her character doesn’t end up as a stereotypical wife figure. But when the final scenes of Hit the Road arrive, Panahiha truly comes into her own by delivering some emotionally brutal moments without uttering a word. Her layered performance is easily one of the best lead performances of 2021 so far and it’s just the kind of aspect of Hit the Road that ensures this feature is anything but a typical road trip movie.

Header: Parallel Mothers (Credit: Film at Lincoln Center – NYFF59)

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