Adriana Ugarte in ‘Julieta’ by Pedro Almódovar
By Zalehah Turner
‘Julieta’ is a story stifled by silence from Spanish writer and director, Pedro Almódovar, who makes his “return to the universe of women” with this austere and restrained drama. Almódovar’s 20th film and 5th nomination for Cannes Film Festival’s 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 Almódovar and his 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, Almódovar is adamant that admirers of Alice Munro should see it as a tribute rather than an adaption.
Almódovar admits 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.”
He also stated 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 to have artistic freedom and let the characters tell the story. “As the Spanish version advanced, I moved farther away from Alice Munro.” Most significantly, Almódovar maintains that family ties usually remain strong throughout the lives of Spanish people with few exceptions, unlike those of Canadians and Americans.
Almódovar’s ‘Julieta’ is a Spanish tale of a mother and her estranged daughter, Anita. The unreconciled rift between the two is an exception to cultural norms, making it all the more painful for Julieta. 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, often to the point of suffocation. While Almódovar may have written the film based on the night that changes the direction of the 25-year-old Julieta’s (Adriana Ugarte) life in ‘Chance’, his heart is in the more mature 60-year-old, Julieta (Suárez) in ‘Silence’, a point made clear from the opening shot.
When we meet Julieta, 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, plain room. At 60, Julieta is a woman who lives life at a distance; restrained and austere yet suffering from the guilt and pain of a life scarred by tragedy.
Almódovar uses repetition as a cinematographic tool, allowing the story to unfold slowly. We learn the tale of Julieta, three entwined stories with a Spanish flavour, through the use of flashbacks, costume, and the mise-en-scène. Almódovar carefully selects markedly different apartments for the stages in Julieta’s life with décor that conveys her changing mood and reflects the tone of the film.
However, film-goers who love Almódovar for his bold, striking colours and powerful female characters will no doubt be disappointed. ‘Julieta’ is Almódovar’s third adaption of a foreign text and marks a significant departure from his signature melodrama style. Admittedly, Almódovar 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. Almódovar’s mature, Spanish Julieta has a weakness and inability to act decisively that is particularly frustrating, despite an impressive performance by Suárez.
Nevertheless, vivid colours sneak through in quiet moments, as if to remind us that this is indeed an Almódovar – his powerful signature style has become a label and he reassures us that he hasn’t left his legacy behind.
‘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.