Almodóvar returns to “the universe of women” with ‘Julieta’

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The devastated, Julieta (Adraiana Urgate) in Julieta (2016) by Pedro Almodovar. Imade courtesy of the SFF.

Julieta is a film stifled by silence from Spanish writer and director, Pedro Almodóvar who makes his ‘return to the universe of women’ with an austere and restrained drama adapted from three short stories by Alice Munro. Almodóvar’s twentieth film and 5th nomination for Palme d’Or, Julieta stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as the female protagonist at different ages. Julieta opened on 8 April in Spain amid controversy over his and brother’s name appearing in the Panama Papers scandal. However, it went on to make its international debut at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and screened out of competition at the 63rd Sydney Film Festival.

Julieta is loosely based around three, nonconsecutive, short stories with the same female protagonist at different stages in her life: ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ written by Nobel Prize and Man Booker International Prize winning author, Alice Munro. However, Almodóvar is adamant that admirers of Alice Munro should see it as a tribute rather than an adaption.

Almodóvar affirms that he “built the script of Julieta around the sequences on the night train” from Alice Munro’s ‘Chance,’ as Julieta’s destiny is on that train. “A place so metaphorical and significant, Julieta comes into contact with the two poles of human existence: death and life.”

Almodóvar admits that, while he was faithful to the scenes on the train, adapting three short stories based in Canada, to Spain and Spanish culture, not to mention, having to create a strong and unified narrative that connected these significant, life changing moments, meant that he had have artistic freedom and let characters tell the story. ‘As the Spanish version advanced, I moved farther away from Alice Munro.’ Most significantly, Almodóvar maintains that, family ties usually remain strong throughout the lives of Spanish people with few exceptions, unlike those of Canadians and Americans.

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Julieta’s mother (Susi Sanchez) and Julieta (Adriana Urgate) in Julieta (2016) by Pedro Almodovar. Image courtesy of the SFF.

Almodóvar’s Julieta is a Spanish tale of a mother, played at different ages by two powerful, Spanish actresses, Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, and her estranged, daughter, Anita. The unreconciled rift between mother and daughter is an exception to the cultural norms, making it all the more painful for Julieta. It is difficult to understand, let alone accept. Julieta seeks refuge in silence in an effort to contain the grief and bury the loss that should have joined them together.

Silence permeates the film, so much so, it is often to the point of suffocation. While, Almodóvar may have written the film based on the night that changes the direction of the twenty-five year old, Julieta’s (Adriana Ugarte) life of ‘Chance’; his heart is in the more mature, the sixty-year old, Julieta (Emma Suaze) of ‘Silence,’ a point made clear from the opening shot.

When we meet Juileta, we are so close to her beating heart, it is hard to recognise it, beneath the soft, red fabric of her blouse that covers the screen. She is packing; carefully bubble wrapping a sculpture of a seated man in a white, austere room. At sixty, Juileta is a woman lives life at a distance; restrained and austere, yet suffering from the guilt and pain of a life scarred by tragedy.

Julieta is finally willing to move from Madrid with her partner, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). The city bares so many painful memories but remains her only link to her estranged daughter, Anita (Blanca Parés and Priscilla Delgado). By chance, she runs into Anita’s old best friend, Bea (Michelle Jenner) who mentions that her daughter is town. Julieta, leaves Lorenzo without explanation, just as Anita once did to her, and haunts the places her daughter once frequented in the hope of finding her and seeking forgiveness.

Almodóvar believes in repetition as a cinematographic tool as well as, having an essential role in people’s lives. The story unfolds slowly through flashbacks. Almodóvar has taken great care with the mise-en-scène. Significantly different apartments and décor mark the stages in Julieta’s life; conveying her changing mood and the tone of the film.

However, film goers who love the Spanish auteur for his bold, striking colours and powerful women who never give in, will no doubt be disappointed. Julieta is Almodóvar’s third adaption of a foreign text and marks a significant departure from his signature style of melodrama. Admittedly, Almodóvar claims this is what the film was asking of him- a sombre, temperate drama, darkened by guilt. It is then unfortunate, that he was so fascinated by the train sequences from Runaway that he was drawn into the web of Munro’s passive and vulnerable character, Juliet Hendersen. Pedro Almodóvar’s mature, Spanish Julieta has a weakness and inability to act decisively that is particularly frustrating, despite an impressive performance by Suárez.

While, vivid colours are still present in the mise-en-scène, it as if a powerful signature style has become a label. There only to remind us that this is indeed, an Almodóvar. Reassuring us that he has not completely left his style, for which he is so famous, behind him.

 ‘Julieta’ is a Spanish language film with English subtitles.

‘Julieta’ screens from 13 October 2016 at Palace Cinemas, Event Cinemas, Dendy Cinemas and the Hayden Orpheum. See websites for details.

-Zalehah Turner

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Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

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