“Julieta,” a Spanish-language movie directed by Pedro Almodóvar, is a bit of a paradox. It’s an emotionally rich and satisfying story encompassing a lifetime’s worth of pain, grief, love and longing, and yet, it’s not exactly a “feelings” movie. It doesn’t connect with viewers at their core; it doesn’t leave its audience thinking and pondering over it after it’s done.
All the building blocks of a beautiful story are technically there. “Julieta” is told largely in flashback. The older Julieta writes the story of her life as a young woman when she met the love of her life, Xoan, on a train. The older Julieta chronicles their early days, their joy at the birth of their daughter and the tragedy that struck their lives when Xoan drowned in a boating accident. Julieta fell into a deep depression, leaving only her daughter, Antía, to take care of her. The older, present day Julieta is estranged from her daughter, leaving her wracked with guilt and grief.
Actresses Emma Suárez (“¿Para qué sirve un oso?”) and Adriana Ugarte (“Palm Trees in the Snow”) play the older and younger Julieta, respectively, and both turn in gorgeous performances. Suárez can break your heart with the tiniest movements around her eyes, the smallest uptick in the pitch of her voice. When we meet Julieta at the start of the film, she is almost entirely alone in the world, and this is communicated almost entirely through the visual style of the filmmaking and through Suárez’s performance. But Ugarte might have the more difficult task, in regard to acting. She takes us through Julieta’s transformation from the most charismatic person in any given room into a deeply sad and broken woman. Together, the two actresses paint a portrait of a complete and complex character, one who holds a sort of fragile inner strength that’s as delicate as it is powerful.
Almodóvar creates a striking visual world for Julieta to live in — primary colors stand out, richly saturated against the Spanish seas and mountains. It’s all accompanied with a lush and graceful score by Alberto Iglesias (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”). The movie is rich with detail and lovingly made, all with the intent of submerging the viewer into the emotional world of Julieta, to empathize with her as fully as we possibly can.
It works, for the most part. Julieta is a character that many other stories would villainize or cast aside as pathetic and spineless — the depressed, absent mother unable to be there for her children. In “Julieta,” we’re forced into her head to really understand her, flaws and all. But even with its beautiful performances, stunning cinematography and emotionally dense subject matter, “Julieta” leaves the viewer feeling cold.
Maybe it’s the flashback structure that holds us at a distance. Maybe it’s the rapid pace that doesn’t give us enough time to be immersed in what’s happening beyond the surface level plot mechanics. Maybe it’s both. Either way, there’s something embedded in the film’s core construction that doesn’t leave enough room for the feelings it so desperately wants to explore to resonate with the audience. To wit: In my showing of “Julieta,” the end of the film was not accompanied by a stunned silence or a roomful of crying people, but of a widespread muttering of “wait, that’s it?” and “oh, okay, it’s over.”
It’s not a bad movie, not even close. I would say it’s actually a lovely movie, wonderful to look at, and made by incredibly talented people. Everything on the surface is just right — beautiful and soulful and engaging. Beneath the glossy surface, though, is a hollow core.