Guilt. That dark emotion pervades the surprisingly austere 21st feature by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, whose stamp has leaned toward outrageousness. His new film is so beguiling—and beautiful to look at—that watching it is gratifying for those who can appreciate its subtlety. Is this a new direction for the auteur, who has made excess the hallmark of his long career?
The titular character feels guilty, ashamed, and perplexed through the many hardships she endures, including the suicide of a companion and an accidental death. The estrangement of her daughter keeps her in the grip of despair for years. Exactly why Antía disappeared at age 18 is the mystery at the core of this intimate drama, based on a triptych of short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro.
Adhering closely to the plot points of Munro’s “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” from the Nobel Prize–winner’s 2004 collection Runaway, Almodóvar adapts the stories elegantly. He makes his Julieta more self-possessed and removes any overt references to religion. He also splits the leading part between two actresses—Emma Suárez as the older Julieta and Adriana Ugarte as the younger, the pair covering a 30-year time span. Meanwhile, sunny Madrid and the fishing community of Galicia stand in for Vancouver and Whale Bay, respectively, transporting the story into Almodóvar’s world.
The tale begins in 2015, when Julieta hears news about her long-lost daughter. As a result, she abruptly halts her plans to move to Portugal, and she does not explain to her kind-hearted boyfriend (Dario Grandinetti) why she will no longer make the move with him. He doesn’t know that she’s a mother, much less that she yearns for more details about her daughter’s disappearance and holds out hope for a reunion.
The split is a deep secret that has haunted Julieta, but now she is ready to examine her painful past for clues as to what fractured the relationship. She writes, “Your absence fills my life,” in a long letter to Antía (played by Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares at different ages) that describes the romance with her father and subsequent key life events.
As a 25-year-old with spiky platinum blonde hair, Julieta met Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train trip and commenced a volatile relationship. The story gradually unfolds through flashbacks, and we learn that the teenage Antía went on a three-month religious retreat after her father died at sea. Julieta drives to the mountain sanctuary, and instead of finding her daughter with bags packed to leave, an unsympathetic official greets her and says, “Antía has chosen her own path, and you are not part of it.”
This announcement belies a lifetime of mother-daughter closeness. As a counterpoint to the film’s deeply emotional themes, the lavish set design, costumes (both saturated in scarlet red), and Alberto Iglesias’s Bernard Herman–esque score situate viewers in the colorful 1980s and in present-day Spain.
Long considered one of the most sensitive and supportive directors of women, Almodóvar once again presents enigmatic and complex roles for his actresses. To date, his female-centric canon includes Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother, and Volver. Julieta made its debut at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and is Spain’s submission for the best foreign language film Oscar.