One way or another, every Pedro Almodovar film is all about his mothers, real or imagined. His latest, Julieta, marks a return to form for all who love to take a bath in his crimson maternal melodramas. Still, it's a quieter, more inward film, less inclined to broad winks at the audience than, say, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her, or even All About My Mother. The mood is intense but consistently somber and introspective, perhaps because Julieta was inspired by three stories from Runaway, a collection by the great Canadian writer Alice Munro.
Munro and Almodovar make an odd couple on paper, but the Spanish director draws out a staple of Munro's writing that's often overlooked in her measured prose and provincial landscapes: She routinely springs horror and violence on the stymied women who wriggle under her microscope. Munro may occasionally even be too much for Almodovar — for him to take a pass on replicating a burning body in Munro's masterful key story, Silence, must count either as unwonted self-restraint or a mischievous shot across the bows of his own excess.
Julieta's dramatic trigger — the sudden, apparently willful disappearance of a hitherto dutiful daughter — is enough to strike terror in the heart of any parent. We meet Julieta (Emma Suarez), a middle-aged Madrid widow who, after years spent alternating between rage and mourning over the disappearance of her beloved daughter Antia (played as a child by Priscilla Delgado and a young adult by Blanca Pares) from a remote spiritual retreat, is about to start a new life with her supportive lover (Dario Grandinetti). A chance meeting with her daughter's former best friend Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), who brings news that Antia now lives not far away, is enough for Julieta to put her future on hold. Returning alone to the apartment building where mother and daughter once lived, she relives a traumatic past in a self-incriminating journal addressed to the absent Antia.
The journal carries us back to a 1980s nocturnal train journey that nods vigorously to Hitchcock and proves fateful for young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), who's fetchingly clad in a blinding blue mini-skirt and a blond shag that sets off her alluring dark eyes. Carnal interchange ensues with a similarly mop-headed stranger (Daniel Grao), followed by a tragic death at Julieta's new home overlooking a roiling ocean. Are sex and death connected? All I can confirm is the flared-nostril appearance of a prototypical Mrs. Danvers-esque housekeeper played by longtime Almodovar collaborator Rossy de Palma. Then again, she may be a red herring, along with Julieta's sultry friend Ava (Inma Cuesta), a sculptor of erotic male figures who dials up the sensual temperature.
Julieta is entirely self-sufficient; you don't have to have read Munro to get the picture, or to revel in the movie's brilliant colors and full-heartedly florid storytelling. But for those who love both Munro and Almodovar, there's meat here in the relative pleasures of reading and watching. Munro writes stark prose in blues and greys; Almodovar pumps up the volume with breathy dialogue, bathing his beleaguered women in brilliant vermilions and electric blues. For Munro, the internal drama is paramount; her subject is the sustained terror of living with uncertainty. She's a lower-case Calvinist, if you like, to Almodovar's upper-case Catholic. His women are always onstage even in their thoughts, and always players in a Greek tragedy, always beset by a crippling guilt that spreads from one woman to the next, each mulling her failures as a woman, a mother, a friend.
In Munro's Silence, Juliet is a television interviewer famed for her insight into character, yet unable to parse her own or her daughter's psyche. Julieta is a teacher of classics who's thoroughly versed in Greek tragedy, yet fails to comprehend her own drama. Munro revels in the opacity of cause and consequence; Almodovar doffs his cap to uncertainty while repackaging it to hint at closure. To the end, Julieta seeks in vain the clarity of explanation, and Almodovar, a kindlier, more sentimental god than Munro when it comes to his beloved women, bestows on her — and on us — an eleventh-hour gift that's almost as good.