Commentary by Andy Ray
Since his 1988 debut with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Spanish director and auteur Pedro Almodovar has always been at his best with stories about females. He seems to have a sixth sense about women, their desires, and their needs. Never has this mantra proven truer than in his latest – a brilliant drama called “Julieta.”
Playing the heroine, veteran Spanish actress Emma Suarez shines as a woman long separated from her daughter Antia. Julieta has a chance encounter with Antia’s former best friend Bea. Bea has recently run into Antia, and she asked about her mother. Julieta then moves back to the Madrid apartment in which she raised Antia – because that’s the only address Antia has for her mother. Julieta begins to write a journal to her daughter, vowing to explain “everything.”
Intrigued, the action quickly shifts back to Julieta’s first meeting with Antia’s father, a fisherman named Xoan. Now I’m typically distracted by screenplays which constantly fluctuate back and forth in time, but Almodovar handles the cut splendidly. He builds just enough interest with his present-day story launch that we’re absorbed before we ever flash back. Furthermore, he then does us the favor of keeping the story in the past, as it progresses toward the present. Save for the occasional voice-over narration by the older Julieta, it’s sometimes pleasantly difficult to remember that we’re still in flashback mode.
The beautiful and talented Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, as we follow her life with Xoan through Antia’s younger years, and then to Xoan’s tragic death in a boating accident. Julieta and Antia move to Madrid on or about Antia’s tenth year. Antia decides to leave her mother while attending a “spiritual” summer camp on or about her eighteenth year. We don’t get a lot of detail regarding Antia’s teen years, but the two actresses who portray her give us excellent portraits of girls at these two life stages. For instance, when 10-year-old Antia leaves for summer camp, she’s distraught to be leaving her mother. At eighteen, the more worldly-wise Antia is only too happy to depart for camp. Her demeanor and attitude fills in a lot of the blanks for us.
As in Kenneth Lonergan’s recent “Manchester by the Sea,” “Julieta” involves several tragic plot twists, but never devolves into the sentimentality that plagues many made-for-television movies. Besides Xoan’s death, Julieta’s mother is dying of Alzheimer’s disease. Upset with her father for carrying on a relationship with his much-younger maid while Mom is bed-ridden, Julieta distances herself from her parents – particularly after her mother’s passing.
While at first it seems like an unnecessary side-story, Julieta’s relationship with her well-meaning father is vital to the plot because of its similarities to Julieta’s relationship with her own daughter. Ironically, Julieta isn’t necessarily the problem, although both connections involve her. This is a film about generational relationships. Oftentimes we say as much through our silence than we do our words. “Julieta” is a “full” picture, in the sense that there’s a lot going on here. But it’s never difficult to follow. And Almodovar handles the aging of characters beautifully.
As young Julieta advances from young single to young mother, Almodovar employs just enough facial make-up to age Julieta the requisite number of years. Ugarte and Suarez deftly handle the changing mannerisms of women at various life stages. When Suarez takes over as Julieta (around Antia’s tenth year), we can hardly tell. Contrast that to Barry Jenkins’ recent “Moonlight,” in which it’s sometimes troublesome to identify various characters as they age, because the actors look so different from one another.
As our story (an original screenplay by Almodovar himself) moves into present day, hope for a mother/daughter reunion builds. The ending may frustrate some, but I found it to be purely magical. As in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” we are required to fill in some blanks by ourselves. I appreciate when a director considers me mature enough to do so.
As usual, Almodovar makes better use of color (and its contrasts) than any other living director. Rather than a cinematic gimmick, Almodovar uses colors to provoke us, to soothe us, or even to titillate. He uses color to help change our moods toward various characters and situations. There isn’t a single shot in “Julieta” that hasn’t been well thought out and smartly considered.
While “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” remains Almodovar’s funniest picture, and “The Skin I Live In” is still his creepiest, “Julieta” may very well be his best. The fact that the Motion Picture Academy has not seen fit to include this masterpiece in its nominees for Best Foreign Language Film is a crime. It is exceptional. Bravo, Almodovar!