ArtsATL > Film > Review: “Julieta” and “Neruda” are two flawed but haunting and fascinating Spanish films

Review: “Julieta” and “Neruda” are two flawed but haunting and fascinating Spanish films

Julieta adapts three Alice Munro short stories.

Julieta marks the collaboration of two great artists whose work I love. The temperament of their work couldn’t seem more unalike at first glance. The film that results is an almost-but-not-quite-there hybrid that I have mixed feelings about but which will haunt me for a while.

Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar is the director, adapting three stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro. Though he’s shown considerable dramatic empathy with female characters in his later films, Almodóvar is still (and will always be) best remembered for the brashly comic, highly stylized and boldly color-coordinated vigor of his earlier movies (also female-focused, but in more cartoonish ways). Those films splash, they pop, they explode off the screen. You — or your younger self, anyway — want to climb up there and snort and drink those movies, roll around in their smoky sheets and make a great comic complaint about it all the next blurry morning. Even in the director’s more sober works, mascara exists to be smeared with tears, vases are made to be smashed, beds burnt. He’s a maximalist.

By contrast, Munro’s Nobel Prize-winning work has largely been short stories. Her canvas, though emotionally deep, is tiny — like Jane Austen’s “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Her stories seem to be studies in sepia. Only on reflection do they start to move in your memory, deepening into color.

Bright, bright color, of course, is one of Almodóvar’s film trademarks. (I’m pretty sure he deploys red in every scene of Julieta.) The linked stories adapted for the film — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” — focus on a Canadian woman named Juliet, who has memorable encounters with two strangers on a train, falls in love, starts a family and then suffers a series of losses.

In the movie, relocated to Spain, we meet Julieta in middle age, played by Emma Suárez. Packing up her apartment, she’s planning to leave Madrid and relocate to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). A chance encounter on the street with the now-grown childhood friend of her own daughter, Antía, changes her plans. We learn that Antía removed herself from Julieta’s life some years ago; since then, she’s refused to be in touch, or reveal her whereabouts to her shocked, grieving mother. Julieta, in turn, has not revealed this deep wound to Lorenzo.

From here, we flash back to the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), a teacher with spiky blonde hair (like Melanie Griffith’s in Body Double) en route to a temporary teaching job. She’s joined in her train compartment by a creepy older fellow and then by the handsome fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao). Later, she builds a family with Xoan, overseen by the disapproving housekeeper Marian (Almodóvar veteran Rossy de Palma, playing a kind of low-rent variant on Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers).

What happens after this, I’ll let you see for yourself. The movie deals with the ways we’re scarred by earlier events, how the lives we expect to lead don’t always turn out that way. On the page and on the screen, it’s a challenge both Munro and Almodóvar set for themselves: how do you convey the passage of time, of large chunks of a whole life? How do you build a dramatic story centered on losses and absences?

I think Almodóvar does as well with the challenge as he possibly can, though longtime fans might question whether Munro’s aesthetic is the best match for his talents. The filmmaker has adapted another writer’s work only three times, including Live Flesh and The Skin I Live In. You could call each of the films, along with Julieta, fascinating experiments . . . though you might want him to get back to doing what he does best — being Almodóvar.

Another good Spanish-language film opening this week is Neruda, from Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No, The Club and Jackie). It helps if you know a little bit about the poet Pablo Neruda before you see the movie. Even if you don’t you’re likely to be absorbed (if slightly confused at times) by Larraín’s playful warping of the traditional biopic form.

Luis Gnecco plays the Rabelaisian poet and senate leader for the Communist Party, a thickset, unlikely magnet for the common folk of the nation. As he wanders through a raucous party, dressed as a sheikh and spouting bits of his own poetry, another man in voice-over tells us, “Many want to kiss him. They want to hold his hand. They want to sleep in his bed . . . Many women must imagine that he makes love with a rose in his teeth . . . He’s the king of love.”

The owner of the voice, as much the film’s protagonist as the title character, is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal). A policeman, Peluchonneau is assigned to apprehend Neruda and any other Communists (their party now banned) by President Videla. Ironically, Neruda was once a Videla supporter, but as an old political friend scolds him, “You let yourself be fooled by a three-penny populist.”

Gael García Bernal is the cop who may, or may not exist, in Neruda.
Gael García Bernal is the cop who may, or may not exist, in Neruda.

Yes, Neruda has unexpected, uncomfortable timeliness as he goes on the lam under an increasingly repressive regime. Not that the poet takes his endangered status very seriously. It’s a big adventure to him, as he travels across the country with his aristocratic Argentinian wife Delia (Mercedes Morán). His biggest complaint is that the safe houses where they’re sheltered are so dingy, and that the bodyguards assigned to protect him don’t think he should wander around in public whenever he wants. Neruda, though, has such an enjoyably heroic, man-of-the-people idea of himself, he sees no problem in toddling around streets in broad daylight, a veritable beacon in a white suit.

In one escapade, he bewitches the workers and clientele of a smoky bordello, where a drag queen sings ballads and kisses him smack on the lips. The slapstick sequence leads to one of the movie’s strongest, transformative moments. That same bordello singer, arrested by Peluchonneau and taken in for questioning, transforms from a semi-comic queen into a representative man of Chile, inspired and emboldened by Neruda’s poetry. He explains to the inspector that the poet treated him as an equal: “Artist to artist, you know. Man to man . . . But a [bleeping] dog like you will never understand.”

He’s right. Peluchonneau is obsessed by Neruda, but he doesn’t exactly get him. The inspector is officious, self-romanticizing, thinking of himself as a great detective like the ones he reads about in books — and unaware of what a comical figure he actually is.

If it sometimes seems that the inspector is a figment of Neruda’s fertile imagination — the necessary antagonist in the adventure story the poet is creating for himself in real life — you’re getting near the truth. Their bond is a mystic-poetic one; they can’t fully live without the other, even if they never quite come face-to-face. “He’s my inspector,” Neruda says. “I dream of him, and he dreams of me.” That strange bond leads to a surprising, magic-realist ending that’s mysterious and satisfying in equal measure.

Neruda and Julieta are both imperfect but fascinating movies that you’ll think about for a long time, just as Isabelle Huppert’s Elle is. None of those three are Oscar nominees for best foreign film. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, which made the list, is more the Academy’s speed: warm, amusing, sentimental, forgettable.

Julieta. With Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Darío Grandinetti. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In Spanish with subtitles. Rated R. 109 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Neruda. With Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Mercedes Morán. Directed by Pablo Larraín. In Spanish with subtitles. Rated R. 107 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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