Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar has been directing for more than 30 years (his breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, came out in 1988) and he knows that if you want to make a point about religion or politics or abuse, don’t preach – tell a story. His preferred medium is melodrama and in this he excels; who can forget Penélope Cruz as the pregnant nun with AIDS in All About My Mother?

Cruz, radiantly beautiful more than two decades later and one of Almodóvar’s muses, is here an older, first-time mother giving birth in the same suite as a young and confused girl named Ana who’s not even sure who is the father of her child. Both women have their babies temporarily removed for treatment and they form a friendship, exchanging numbers before they go home.

Through flashbacks we learn that Janis (Cruz) is a respected photographer who had an affair with a forensic anthropologist whose personal help she enlists in disinterring a decades-old mass grave. The older women in her family know the precise location because at least one of them was there when the killing happened. The murdered men were victims of Franco’s fascist militia and the unravelling of this period is a subject of hard reckoning within Spain, as it is for Almodóvar.

As there are parallel mothers, so there are two advancing sides to this very engaging movie which bears the indelible hallmarks of Almodóvar’s mannered but deliciously earthy approach. The main body of the film follows closely the relationship between Janis and Ana (a luminous Milena Smit) and their babies after they return to their lives. While the women grapple with identity and what that means, Janis moves slowly towards the recovery of the remains of the fathers, husbands and uncles who were taken into the fields and shot. One of them, we learn, was seized for questioning one night, then released to return to his family. He did so knowing his captors would be back and that he would be killed, yet he had too much dignity to flee. This is serious stuff with a gripping score to underline its weight but it never feels heavy-handed.

It is evident that age and experience is making some things more urgent for Almodóvar, whose previous work, Pain and Glory, was a sober reckoning with his personal past and fractured friendships. This shares the same gorgeous palette of muted greys and greens brightened with pops of vibrant colour; a red cushion, a pink kettle, a vivid yellow Jeep, Cruz in a striped multi-coloured frock.

The presence of another Almodóvar muse, Rossy de Palma – with her incredible Picasso profile and wearing tartan plaid –  is a further burst of joy and moment of continuity. It is a reminder that Almodóvar’s subjects might change but he never loses sight of his aesthetic, or his pleasure in beautiful things.

Parallel Mothers opens in cinemas nationally this week.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.