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Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Julieta’ feels a parent’s pain

Julieta (Emma Suarez) has given up her teenage daughter for dead, until she learns the girl is grown and has a family.
Julieta (Emma Suarez) has given up her teenage daughter for dead, until she learns the girl is grown and has a family. .

No contemporary director has examined mother/daughter relationships with the consistency or insight of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar.

At one time his latest effort, “Julieta,” would have been described as a “women’s picture.” But that superficial label fails to take into account the panache Almodovar brings to all of his projects (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Volver”).

Romantic loss has been his frequent topic. “Julieta” takes a different approach, being a saga about parental loss.

Drawn from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, the screenplay opens with a chance encounter on a Madrid street between the 50-something Julieta (Emma Suarez) and Bea, the childhood best friend of her daughter Antia.

Bea reports that she recently ran into her old friend at Lake Como, where Antia was shopping with her children.

Julieta is stunned. A dozen years earlier the teenage Antia vanished into a cult. Bea’s report is the first real proof that her daughter is still alive and that Julieta is now a grandmother.

Overnight everything changes. Julieta scraps plans to relocate with her boyfriend to Portugal. She moves back into the same building where she once shared a flat with Antia, desperately hoping that her daughter will come looking for her there.

And she is compelled to write down important incidents from her past.

In these elaborate flashbacks we follow the steamy relationship of the young Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a hunky fisherman. Their union produces Antia.

Years of happiness are brought up short by tragedy. Julieta and Antia return to Madrid to rebuild their lives. Antia and Bea become the closest of friends.

And then comes the summer “spiritual” retreat that upends their lives.

Almodovar’s screenplay is basically a mystery that carefully doles out information — we don’t get the big picture until late in the proceedings.

Clearly inspired by the ’50s domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life,” “All That Heaven Allows”), “Julieta” is a pretty somber affair. Even so, the filmmaker can’t help slipping in some playful elements, particularly a turn by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma as Xoan’s dourly protective housekeeper, a hatchet-faced woman reminiscent of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.”

And visually it’s always a delight, filled with electric blues and reds that reflect the inner states of the characters.

There is perhaps less here than meets the eye — this is second-drawer Almodovar — but in Suarez’s performance as the mature Julieta, the director has an ideal vessel for expressing parental pain and loss.

(At the Tivoli and Town Center.)

Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘Julieta’

Rated R. Time: 1:39.

In Spanish with subtitles.

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