According to a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” But making a masterwork on the subject of loss, a perennial theme in art, may be harder than it looks. The young adulthood and middle age of Julieta, the heroine of Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, are shadowed by death and abandonment, which she does her best to handle gracefully. Almodóvar tells her story with his characteristic later-period blend of elegant restraint and keening melodrama. “Julieta” is scrupulous, compassionate and surprising, even if it does not always quite communicate the full gravity and sweep of the feelings it engages.
Julieta is played in her 20s by Adriana Ugarte; in middle age by Emma Suárez. The older version is the first person we see, dressed in bright red and living in a spare, modern Madrid apartment. Julieta abruptly ends a romantic relationship with Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) and plunges into a sea of reminiscences and regrets. Time spools backward and we encounter her, as Ms. Ugarte, with spiky superblond hair and a bright-blue cowl-neck sweater-dress, on a long train ride.
The colors are important because they are part of Mr. Almodóvar’s emotional vocabulary. They are integral to the world he imagines, a rendering of contemporary Spain filtered through selected works of literature and Hollywood films of the 1950s.
Julieta’s experiences — love, marriage, motherhood, small-town life — are drawn from a trilogy of linked short stories by the Canadian writer (and Nobel laureate) Alice Munro. Young Julieta, a student of classics on her way to a teaching job, falls for a fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) and goes to live with him in a small coastal town. They raise a daughter, Antia, amid ocean breezes and under the watchful eye of a busybody (the Almodóvar fixture Rossy de Palma).
Julieta’s bliss is shattered by a series of tragedies that seem to have been foretold at other moments in her life. The mother-daughter bond, fierce and smothering and complicated, lies at the heart of the film, and it is after Antia’s departure that “Julieta” finds its deepest, richest tones.
Ms. Suárez suffers with a dignity reminiscent of Bette Davis and other great screen heroines of the past, even as she surrenders to a longing that borders on mania. In a letter to her absent daughter, she likens maternal love to an addiction, and the second half of her story follows the familiar, agonizing stages of recovery, relapse and at least partial or potential redemption.
If the rest does not rise to the level of Almodóvar’s melodramatic masterworks, “Julieta” is nonetheless a worthy and welcome addition to his canon, the double portrait of a woman perpetually on the verge of understanding who she is.
Cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti, Rossy de Palma.
Writer-director: Pedro Almodóvar. Based on short stories by Alice Munro.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 99 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: O Cinema Miami Beach, Landmark, Tower.