The latest from Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, "Julieta" finds its inspiration in a trio of connected short stories by author Alice Munro that center around the titular woman as she reflects on her life and her relationship with her long-lost daughter, Antía. The story is a Douglas Sirk melodrama by way of a Hitchcockian thriller, but the filmmaker manages to combine elements of each together in a way that's completely Almodóvar.
The film begins with middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) on the verge of leaving Spain and moving to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But during a chance meeting with one of Antía's childhood friends, she learns that her daughter may have resurfaced. Immediately, Julieta returns home and breaks things off with Lorenzo, telling him that she plans to remain in Madrid without him. She moves back into an apartment she and Antía lived in years prior, hoping her daughter will return to their old home and find her. In the interim, she begins writing a letter to Antía, attempting to sort through her past and come to some understanding of exactly how things went so wrong between them.
Details of Julieta's life are gradually filled in through extended flashbacks, and we're introduced to Julieta during her younger days (played by Adriana Ugarte) as an idealistic teacher in the 1980's. We see her meet Antía's father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on a fateful train ride where she also encounters an unexpected death. Slowly and deliberately, Almodóvar doles out information only as we need it, letting us observe Julieta and Xoan's years of marriage, and showing us how the younger woman transforms into the elder (in a striking directing choice, the actual switch between actresses is done mid-scene, and it's beautifully done).
After recent detours into campy comedy with "I'm So Excited!" and macabre thrills with "The Skin I Live In," Almodóvar returns to the familiar territory of the female-centric melodrama. Throughout his career as a filmmaker, he's always been captivated by the strength of women, and here he crafts a mystery about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and how sacrifice and love, guilt and resentment can irrevocably alter it. His actresses flourish under his direction, each one delivering wonderful, deeply empathetic performances. The director brings his typical humanity to his stories, never judging his characters for their actions. Also familiar is the director's trademark candy-colored production design, setting the emotional temperature of every scene. Even when working comfortably within his wheelhouse, "Julieta" is another reminder that Almodóvar is the best director working today.