Reviewer Lindah Kiddey
Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest release, is a film of love, loss, death, dread, suspicion, secrets, and maybe salvation, following in the same fine tradition of emotion laden cuentas (stories) that Almodóvar has used to such international acclaim over 30 years of movie-making. However, more unusual for Spain’s controversial, multi-award-winning director are the characters and the storyline. Both capture love, lust, pain, regret, guilt, and bereavement in stark reality, with a changing backdrop of wild and beautiful rugged coastline contrasting sharply with the humdrum isolation of big city living.
Gone are the over-blown characters strutting their often farcical take on life, which audiences have come to expect from Almodóvar’s box of delights; both Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas have won their global film-acting reputations by starring in his movies. Here, with Julieta, we get a restrained, reflective, emotionally raw, often compassionate tale of parental pain, hopelessness, faith, depression, and stretched resilience, with a touch of troublemaking venom thrown into the mix. And what of the topography? Bad life decisions are tempered by the delights of stirring sea foam and green, forest-filled coastal gorges, and then made worse by the sterility of the big city: very Latin, very real, very international.
Scripted by the man himself – as are many Almodóvar films – and inspired by two Alice Munro short stories, we follow Julieta over two decades. The tale opens with our heroine, a somewhat faded middle-aged woman living alone in Madrid, on a determined but seemingly hopeless mission to find her long-time missing daughter, Antía. Forever hopeful, but always tense and disappointed, she bakes and bins an annual birthday cake in the hope of conjuring up some kind of contact – a letter, a familiar knock at the door, a phone call – that never comes.
A subsequent flashback to Julieta’s freewheeling punk days encompasses an erotic fling with a stranger on a speeding train, a despairing fellow passenger, then guilt and complications, marriage and motherhood, as the splendid rocky Atlantic coastal scenery – restless and angry with dangerous waves and unpredictable weather – becomes a metaphor for Julieta’s life. Tragedy is heaped upon her, before her life completely unravels in her one-woman fruitless quest to find her daughter whose reasons for disappearance, whether abduction or worse, are yet to be revealed. Although Julieta’s life of overwhelming grief and suspension is punctuated by the potential for happiness of a kind, she just can’t hold onto whatever is offered, as the never-ending quest to find Antía has become all-absorbing, while the anuual hope-filled annual cake just reinforces the tormenting silence. Chance encounters bring solace and rejection, hopeful news and sworn secrets, before the film concludes in an open-ended ‘reveal’.
The loneliness of cities; the darkness of widowhood; the deep, unconditional parental love of a child; self-regret; loss, and the power of affection and friendship all blend together to bring Julieta alive as a good, yet somewhat flawed woman, but surely no more than anyone else with her life experiences. Sterling performances of Julieta, both the younger and the older, are played with skill, sensitivity and appeal by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez, alongside appealing performances from Daniel Grao as Xoan, Julieta’s lover turned husband, and Rossy de Palma, as the housekeeper from hell; now there’s a memorable hatchet-faced frostiness that’s hard to forget.
A night watching Julieta is a good night at the movies, for anyone who likes a realistic, unsettling tale. It captures scenes of ordinary life made darkly extraordinary by the power of people to be good and not so good, as Julieta’s amiable life transforms into tragic one, and she struggles to cope with every parent’s nightmare. Prepare to be moved.