Film Review | The burden of absence

Loosely adapted from three short stories by celebrated Canadian author Alice Munro, Julieta somehow manages to be both a character study and an involving, twisty-turny drama at every step of the way • 4/5 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
12 October 2016, 7:47am
Fragile dreams: Julieta (Emma Suarez) is burdened with a painful past she’s struggling to reconcile with in Pedro Almodovar’s latest time-hopping drama
Fragile dreams: Julieta (Emma Suarez) is burdened with a painful past she’s struggling to reconcile with in Pedro Almodovar’s latest time-hopping drama
Making the 20th feature by the hugely popular Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, Julieta can be seen as something of a return to form for the beloved filmmaker after the hyper-camp trifle that was the air hostess comedy I’m So Excited (2013). 

Loosely adapted from three short stories by celebrated Canadian author Alice Munro, Julieta somehow manages to be both a character study and an involving, twisty-turny drama at every step of the way. The razor-sharp clarity of its focus and pace is largely down to Almodovar’s predilection for shamelessly playing around with time-tested storytelling tropes. But his deft hand assures that these do not become clichés to lean on, but instead serve as powerful – and timeless – ways to unspool his narrative.

Former teacher of Classical Literature Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) has a secret. It’s a secret that threatens to unravel her newfound happiness with Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) when out of the blue, she scuppers their plans to move to Portugal and decides to stay put in Madrid instead. A chance encounter with her daughter Antia’s (Priscilla Delgrado/Blanca Pares) old school friend Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) pushes her to write down just what’s been eating at her for over a decade: her romantic first days with her fisherman husband Xoan (Daniel Grau) and the torturous latter years that followed.

Fresh pain: Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta
Fresh pain: Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta
Colourful and complex are two of the many adjectives one can use to describe Almodovar, but perhaps ‘subtle’ may not in fact be one of them. This should not be taken as a slight on the man’s sizeable oeuvre in general and this film in particular, however. Almodovar’s ability to meld in various references – be they filmic, literary or taken from other references in the global visual culture – while maintaining the pace and clarity of his storytelling could very well be the reason why he’s a ‘foreign filmmaker’ who consistently enjoys pride of place among mainstream Hollywood productions. 

In the case of Julieta, Almodovar signposts ‘Greek Tragedy’ fairly early on, with the crushing weight of inevitability – also a key trait in those Classical texts – being felt through the various coincidences that land on Julieta’s doorstep. Characters are also paired in obvious binaries, which makes their collective destinies even more keenly felt. 

In lesser hands, it would all have felt a bit contrived: like a soap opera straining for more elevated thematic relevance. But working his expert charm on his actors as he always does, Almodovar ensures that each frame and plot development is suffused with compassion for the characters and brimming with pathos at their – often interlinked – plight. And while the necessarily minimal approach of the story does not really call for Almodovar’s more brash visual turn, the master stylist still uses it sparingly but effectively, as in the scenes of Julieta and Xoan’s early courtship, with her bright blue shirt and her shock of short blonde hair.

An impeccable piece of storytelling that’s complex at its core but breathtakingly simple in its execution, Julieta will appeal to all those who take the plunge into its pained but beautiful journey.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...