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'Julieta' Is Packed With Hidden Stories And Things Unsaid

Sony Pictures

Pedro Almodóvar opens Julieta with undulating folds of red cloth. When the shot widens, it turns out to be Julieta’s dress. She’s about to move, so her apartment looks spare and muted. The rich, voluminous red dress sets you back on your heels and announces that what’s coming will be at least one, and probably more stories that are as bold as the color.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) is a 50-ish woman and the mother of a grown daughter, Antia, who broke contact with Julieta years ago. Soon, Julieta meets an old friend on the street who has seen Antia, and that news so shocks and upsets Julieta that she decides not to move out of Madrid, as she’d planned, to drop the man she was moving with, and to sit down and write a letter to her daughter telling her all the difficult things she’d never said before. There are three full decades’ worth of that, and Julieta has no idea where to send the letter. But her story begins on a train hurtling through the night about 30 years earlier when she was teaching Homer’s The Odyssey in a college.

For a movie that dwells in the land of faithless men and stricken women, and is packed with counter currents, cross-purposes, shames, stories hidden and things unsaid, Julieta comes on bold and direct. The music may portend danger and struggle, but the visual texture of the film sparkles in clarity. Pedro Almodóvar doesn’t hide shady elements in the creases or the shadows. He puts that stuff right out front, because that’s what’s important for him.

Julieta is a lurid film that comes out of the American melodramas of the 1950s, like Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. In these pictures, things grab attention according to how characters feel about them, not whether they’re big events in any typical sense. No one robs a bank or gets elected president. Instead, characters suddenly can’t follow through on a commitment or they fall in love on a train, or a father in late middle age has an affair with his memory-damaged wife’s caretaker. The jumbled moralities, proprieties and desires make it near-impossible for daughters to talk to their parents or children. And so they harbor feelings until they have to come out – and then the women wear billowing red dresses.

When the woman on the street tells Julieta that she’s seen Antia, the scene looks non-descript, except that the woman herself wears a startling black and white dress. She’s an editor for a European edition of Vogue Magazine, so the cut of her clothing and her hair is hyper-sharp. She’s the visual element that catches your eye – everything else recedes in the face of the exaggerated feeling the moment creates in Julieta.

Pedro Almodóvar makes uncorralled emotion the stuff of life, and it’s inescapable. Julieta’s husband Xoan dies – and it sets off waves of complicated feeling and action. Julieta appears completely in jet black clothing with black sunglasses. It’s almost a parody of mourning, as if mourning were a style. For Almodóvar, it’s the expression of feeling that cuts to the core of his characters, and his characters live on the near-chaotic edge where untrammeled feeling pushes rationality out of the way.

Julieta isn’t quite interested in the conventional look of the physical world. It’s not literal realism. The film pictures the subjective outward appearance of interior states of being. Almodóvar’s not afraid to have his characters prostrate themselves or collapse and have to be carried around for long periods of time. So Julieta shows a woman who collapses with what for her is terrible loss, only to rise up and steel herself for what may be a great triumph over the uncontrollable events of life – or what might also be yet another cause for collapse. Either way, it’s grand.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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