Film Review: Julieta

Visually splendid and beautifully performed, stylish family drama about the impact of a mysterious mother-daughter estrangement is part Sirkian melodrama, part Hitchcock-lite that is a career high for Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar.
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Julieta, Spain’s entry for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Oscar and multiple nominee in the top categories in the upcoming 29th European Film Awards, conjures considerable emotional and emphatic visual dividends inspired by the Alice Munro source material. In its story of a mother’s anguish and the intrigue behind her daughter’s rejection, the film offers a wealth of authentic portrayals of relatable younger and older modern Spaniards in both urban and regional settings. This lushly produced, deeply felt Spanish production, often in love with vibrant, life-giving reds, provides a highly entertaining and engrossing cinematic journey that should drive positive critical reaction and word of mouth.

At the forefront of this drama is the eponymous Julieta (Emma Suárez), first met as a comfortable, attractive 40-something Madrid resident planning a getaway with boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) on an extended visit to Portugal. But out on the Madrid streets, she bumps into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), her daughter Antía’s best friend for many years since they were pre-teens but now a successful fashion journalist with Vogue. Beatriz surprises Julieta with news that she herself accidentally bumped into Julieta’s daughter Antía now living at Lake Como with her three children. What Beatriz does not know as she runs off with her trendy très gay fashion friends is that Julieta has been estranged from Antía for many years.

This chance encounter triggers a crisis for Julieta, a rush of memories and a new priority. She abruptly calls off her Portugal getaway with Lorenzo and even the relationship itself. Flashbacks, seamlessly integrated with a present-day, increasingly haunted Julieta, ensue to enlighten on this mother’s exacerbating situation. We first meet a 20-something Julieta (the wisely chosen Adriana Ugarte) as a substitute high-school classics literature teacher who is clearly very capable and liked by her students. With the return of the regular teacher, Julieta finds herself without a job but with some time to travel. On a night train she meets handsome young fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao), returning to his seaside home. Chemistry is instantaneous—they connect, and after the train continues on its way after an accident, make passionate love in a darkened compartment.

Back in Madrid and now pregnant, Julieta received a letter from Xoan inviting her to visit him. She brings him the news of the pregnancy, and they later marry and live happily at Xoan’s charming waterfront home near his fishing boat. Young daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado as a child and Blanca Parés as the teenage girl) is a happy addition to the household. Betraying as a pre-teener some tomboy leanings, she is determined to become a fisherman like her beloved father. But things grow complicated after Antía is sent off to camp. Making matters murkier is Ava (Inma Cuesta), the local artist who was friend to both Xoan and his late wife. And there’s the shadow thrown by Marian (frequent Almodóvar star Rossy de Palma), Xoan’s longtime housekeeper, who is a sinister, meddling presence not unlike the mysterious Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca.

But it’s Antía’s friendship with Beatriz at camp that becomes another big turning point in the story. Their closeness continues well into and maybe beyond adolescence, followed by the daughter’s withdrawal to a kind of cultish Pyrénees mountain retreat. When Julieta tries to spring her, she finds a big, insurmountable brick wall amidst so much pastoral splendor.

Julieta’s strong points are many, especially the fine performances across the board, with Suárez so affecting in her role of the anguished mother. Jean-Claude Larrieu serves up eye candy with his lush photography and capture of fine production design, whether gorgeous mountains, foamy oceans or handsome interiors. And, as if counterpointing the splashes of Almodóvar-emphatic reds, Alberto Iglesias’ score hits the grey Sirk-Hitchcock notes of powerful inner feelings. Julieta surprises up to its final moments.

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