Julieta is Almodovar's Best in Many a Moon

JULIETA (2016)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Warner Brothers (Spain), 96 minutes, R (nudity and sex)
In Spanish with subtitles

After a long string of regrettable cinema experiences, I gave up on Pedro Almodóvar. For me, he had become the Spanish Woody Allen—a self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual constantly recycling shopworn ideas and trying to hide his lack of creativity behind a screen of pretentious dialogue the likes of which no earthly person actually utters. When a trustworthy soul told me that Julieta was different, I relented and I'm glad I did. This is the best thing Almodóvar has done since Talk to Her (2002). Julieta is everything Almodóvar has been lacking. It is focused, tightly structured, and humane. In fact, it's that rarest of films: one about tragedy that is simultaneously sweet, hopeful, and biting.

Almodóvar skillfully weaves three Alice Munro short stories to cover approximately thirty years in the life of Julieta Arcos. We first meet her older self as she is on the verge (pun intended!) of the downward slide away from middle age, but toward a new adventure. She is about to leave Madrid and relocate to Portugal with her attentive and sensitive long-time partner Lorenzo Gentile (Darío Grandinetti). A chance encounter with Beatriz, a young woman who was her daughter Antia's childhood friend, opens a sealed off chapter of Julieta's past.  Beatriz bears the news that she briefly saw Antia in Switzerland, which sends Julieta down a rabbit hole of depression, regret, and deep hurt as her daughter left home at 18 and severed all contact with her mother. Julieta impulsively rejects Lorenzo and moves back to an apartment building where she and Antia once lived. There she composes a confessional journal, but to whom? She has no way of contacting her daughter.

Almodóvar has never been a fan of linear filmmaking, but this time he connects flashbacks with the present so expertly that we easily connect the tragic dots that led to mother/daughter estrangement. A train journey and two chance encounters touch off the butterfly effect. Or perhaps I should say the ruminant effect, as a magnificent stag charging across a snowy trackside field symbolizes determination and desire, but also reckless passion. The human encounters tie Julieta's future to Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman with a comatose wife and animal magnetism; his Bride of Frankenstein-like housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma); and a free-spirited sculptress, Ana (Imma Castro). Each will play a role in the mother-daughter drama.

Passions of all sorts are unleashed in this film: libidinal, intellectual, artistic, maternal, spiritual…. They play out against various tragic backdrops, including drowning, disease, infidelity, guilt, and unspoken resentments. As you might surmise, the latter two are, in their own way, more deadly than mortality itself.

Almodóvar cast exceptionally well in choosing Adriane Ugarte as Julieta in her young adult years and Emma Suárez as her older self. Ugarte is breathtakingly beautiful, but Suárez is so much like her facially and physically that we can easily imagine Ugarte thirty years hence as a still-attractive woman whose innocence has been tempered by sophistication and experience. Grandinetti also strikes all the right chords as an urbane gentleman torn between lingering and moving on. All of the secondary characters contribute convincing performances.

It is worth paying attention to many things that could easily be overlooked amidst the emotional pulls of the film. There is a lot of foreshadowing and repetition that marshal Munro's three stories into a circular structure, but also visual details that reel us in, such as the use of bold patterns, the stark jolt of contrasting colors, and the use of art as both texture and prefiguration. Plus, few rival Almodóvar when it comes to etching the film's arc upon the human face. Days later you could be shown a dozen random stills from the film and extrapolate the script from the characters' expressions. Though the movie is just an hour and a half long, its emotional scale feels epic.

Those who like Almodóvar's more loosely structured films have been lukewarm about Julieta, but I feel the opposite. With Julieta, Almodóvar wins a reprieve from my no-view ban. It would, however, take a miracle for Woody Allen to win a pardon.

Rob Weir  


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