The jigsaw cinema of Pedro Almodóvar can be bombastic and emotionally robust, but it’s always infused with a deep unspoken melancholy that resides underneath the surface. Often focusing on women trying to make peace with past trauma, the Spanish director populates his movies with important details that help craft a singular perspective. Dynamic wallpaper patterns line hallways. Kitchens and bedrooms are infused with bright splashes of color. Photographs portray memories that could materialize at any moment. Initially obscured, these objects gain resonance to both story and character. All the pieces eventually come together.
In Julieta, Almodóvar’s sublime new melodrama, the titular character played by Emma Suárez reflects on the past while writing an impassioned letter to her estranged daughter. Since the film takes place almost primarily from her point-of-view, it unfolds with the furious anxiety of a broken mother trying to understand where things went wrong. There’s no room for happiness or closure within this headspace, just the continuing cycle of desperation and regret.
Employing a malleable flashback structure, the film cuts from the present day to two decades before. Adriana Ugarte embodies the younger Julieta as a hip and impassioned teacher of Classical Literature, excited about her uncertain future much like Ulysses viewed his own fateful journey. During a frigid cross-country train ride to Madrid she meets her own Calypso, Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman who lives by the coast. The two instantly fall in love, get married and have a baby girl named Antía.
Despite seeming the model of happiness, Julieta’s family isn’t immune to the sinister bouts of fate that tend to malign Almodóvar’s central characters. Calamity strikes more than once, providing opportunities for guilt to spread between characters like a virus. The film itself becomes Julieta’s attempt to understand the role she plays along the way, with each decision or indecision carrying with it the weight of Greek tragedy.
Compared to Almodóvar’s grand masterpieces (All About My Mother, Volver), his latest might seem quaint. But Julieta is a subtle force of nature, elementally connected with its lead character and her battle to regain personal and familial balance. Each moment builds upon the last, every inch of the frame representing an important clue. One sculpture becomes a recurring motif, created with a sturdy base by its artist “so the wind can’t knock it over.” Indeed, Julieta often finds endurance and resilience from the relics of her past.
Relationships, and how they change, ultimately dictate the film’s direction. Julieta’s tumultuous connection with Antía comes to exemplify the many ways pain can manifest thanks to prolonged repression and silence. Antía and her best friend Bea are inseparable until they become teenagers. Only years later do we find out they had a falling out. Xoan’s decades-long tryst with a local artist appears to be an afterthought until it becomes the film’s most crucial betrayal.
Julieta, which opens Friday, Jan. 13, ultimately ponders if forgiveness can ever be possible when deceptions are so devastating they can enrage the ocean. Almodóvar arrives at a balletic conclusion that doesn’t necessarily provide absolution, but the hope that someday it might be possible. In the film’s final shot, the camera soars from Julieta’s side up into the air and over the glassy surface of Lake Cuomo. Finally, free as a bird.
This moment parallels the lecture young Julieta gives to her students regarding the definition of pontos, a personification of the sea in Greek mythology describing the road to adventure, the great unknown. Without even knowing it, she’s experienced her own great odyssey worthy of the ancients. The end of the film is just the beginning.