Julieta, Spain, 2016, directed by Pedro Almodovar
In UK cinemas from 26th August 2016
Reviewed by Dr Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist with a special interest in functional gastrointestinal disorders and their treatment with hypnosis
The opening shot of Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Julieta’ shows a pulsating red cloth that looks like a curtain; as the camera slowly pulls back, we realize that it is actually a lady’s dress. From the outset, we know that we are about to enter one of Almodovar’s favourite arenas, namely the ‘women’s world’. However, ‘Julieta’ is definitely less “Almo-dramatic” than his previous films; it plays as a mystery tale, but there are no victims, no villains and no murder investigation. Nor do we get the usual humour, the defiance and the provocative style that usually permeate Almodovar’s films.
Julieta (Emma Suarez), is a good-looking, well-off woman in her mid-fifties, who is happily planning a vacation with her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Accidentally she runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) who tells Julieta of a recent encounter with Ania, Julieta’s estranged daughter (Imena Solano, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés, at different ages). Julieta abandons her planned journey, and starts writing a diary conceived as a letter to her daughter Ania. Using a series of detailed flashbacks, Almodovar narrates Julieta’s earlier life, starting with her as a 20 year old woman falling in love with Xoan (Daniel Grao) while on a train journey. The two lovers get married soon after their first encounter, and Julieta gives birth to Ania. After Xoan’s death, Ania mysteriously disappears at the age of 18. Repeated attempts by Julieta to get in touch with Ania end in vain. Using a sequence of emotional scenes, Julieta’s feelings of guilt and bewilderment over Anias’ disappearance are poignantly portrayed. Julieta’s torment is masterfully underlined by Lucian Freud’s self-portrait (1985) hanging on a wall in her house, acting as a metaphor for most of Freud’s paintings, the continuous suffering of everyday life.
‘I sometimes have the impression that reality is simply there to provide material for my next film’, Almodovar famously stated. Using imaginative plotting in his films, he underlines the ominous consequences of the unsaid on human lives; the original title of ‘Julieta’ was ‘Silencio’ Spanish for ‘Silence’. A tragic mis-communication between Julieta and Ania, orchestrated by Xoan’s housekeeper, explains Ania’s disppearance, in a plot twist reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(1940_film).
The role of nature and fate in dictating the tragic life course of some human beings saturate the film. Nature, specifically sea water, bestows both survival means and death (Xoan is a fisherman who dies in his ship during a storm). Fate is at play in the train trip of young Julieta where she met Xoan for the first time: she had just rejected the advances of a depressed passenger (Tomas del Estal), who commits suicide fas a result. We are all at the mercy of fate, with significant consequences stemming from the apparently insignificant choices that we make. But even if we do not make those seemingly trivial choices, fate can cruelly hit, for example with a neurodegenerative illness, such as multiple sclerosis that affects Ava (Inma Cuesta), Xoan’s lover, forcing her to give up a career as a sculptor.
Cognitive loss, as in coma and to a lesser degree in dementia, is also explored: Xoan’s wife has been in a vegetative state for years, and Julieta’s mother Sara (Susi Sanchez) is affected by dementia. Both Xoan and Julieta’s father (Joaquin Notario) react similarly to their wives’ cognitive loss by looking for other women.
A subtle message is appreciated when Julieta visits her bedridden mother who has dementia; talking to her, combing her hair, and helping her get dressed is followed by clear improvement in the mother’s wellbeing.
Almodovar’s hard core enthusiasts may be disappointed as ‘Julieta’ is very different from his previous films. Nevertheless, it can be appreciated as Almodovar’s cinematic development into a more reflective and mature look on life.
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