Of Mothers and Daughters: Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta and Three Alice Munro Short Stories

Pedro Almodóvar’s 20th feature Julieta (2016) stays wholly with its eponymous heroine, played by the vivacious Adriana Ugarte in her younger years and by Emma Suárez who lends immense dignity to the character in the film’s more sombre, subdued present. Based on three related Alice Munro short stories “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence” from the Canadian author’s brilliant 2004 collection Runaway, the film traces events, memories, upsets and longings in the life of one Julieta Arcos. What dominates and indeed shapes this woman’s present life is the absence of her daughter Antía who suddenly and adamantly severs all ties with her. For 12 years Julieta languishes, rages, waits and pines without being offered answers. When her own loss finally brings Antía to a realisation of her mother’s sorrow, she welcomes a reconciliation. But even as Julieta sets out to meet her daughter in the film’s closing moments, she resolves to ask her nothing.

But why does Antía so abruptly reject a mother she had once cared for almost with a maternal compassion and helped out of debilitating grief? The film doesn’t really tell us, and never lets Antía do so in her own words. All we get are speculations from those left baffled and flailing for answers in the wake of her disappearance. Her words are reported by others but Antía herself within the scope of the film reserves her silence on the matter.

Words then are Antía’s weapon of hurt, which she wields through her refusal to use them. She leaves without a word, relying on a representative of the spiritual retreat she had escaped to relay her message of separation to her mother. On her own birthday every year, she sends a card to Julieta, but each of them blank, unsigned. It is also words that finally end the estrangement. She writes Julieta a letter in which she details the circumstances of the death of her son Xoan whom she named after her father (Daniel Grao). Death in a way also bookends this more-than-a-decade-long split between mother and daughter. In Julieta, Xoan dies twice, both times by drowning. The first death—that of the father—unleashes the spiral of guilt and blame that eventually leads to the severance while the second occasions a union.

Silence was the title initially chosen for the film. Indeed, it is the third and most fraught of Munro’s three stories that fills up the film and gives it its restrained tone and emotion, a marked departure from the famously flamboyant director’s long-established love for camp. Alice Munro’s characteristic experiments with time, her flashbacks and -forwards between significant incidents or periods in her characters’ lives are somewhat absorbed and implemented by Almodóvar in the non-linear structuring of the film. But while Munro bases each of the stories, their swift movements back and forth and all, in the larger extended present allowing us to grow and age with her heroine, to experience her every rush of joy, humiliation and disappointment alongside her, the film lets us meet her in the after, in her middle age where much has already happened in her past and very little is taking place in her present. What this narrative choice does is make her daughter’s loss which pervades her present the single most affecting incident in Julieta’s life, letting the others somewhat fade and diminish in retrospect.

Breathing, pulsating folds of red fabric fill Julieta’s opening frame, the distinct colour palette announcing even before the title does that we are in familiar Almodóvar territory. A naked, seated bronze statue appears which a pair of manicured hands gently cover in plastic. This figurine, we eventually learn, was a parting gift from Julieta’s friend and romantic rival Ava (Inma Cuesta), an artist. In two early consecutive scenes, Almodóvar positions Julieta and Xoan’s young naked bodies bronzed by the sun in relation to the robust terracotta-coloured statues Ava lovingly shapes with her hands. Ava’s creation of these figures, moreover, coincides with the announcement of Julieta’s pregnancy. The gift then is a marker of a time Julieta is ready to wrap away, all her memories of her old life on the coast, of domestic bliss, betrayal and trauma contained in this figure’s powerful, burnished body. And yet she will not leave it behind as she moves out of her home in Madrid. It is a relic that she will preserve and carry as she prepares for a new life in Portugal with boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). One chance meeting with an old acquaintance, however, brings all her plans to a halt. In allowing her to start hoping again it will plunge her into a grief she has struggled years to overcome.     

Munro explained in an interview in 2004 that she did not see “Silence” as necessarily a sad story. “I think that some things that are seen as tragic can also be things that people do. The daughter has a choice to live quite honestly which means just ditching her mother, or to live with a number of conventions and very mixed emotions which is the way most of us live with our parents. Maybe all of us do. Instead, she gets out, not because her mother is a terrible person, not because she has any great grievance… she just goes on…,” Munro said. Her story similarly sees her heroine Juliet go on with her life, returning to her studies, working part-time at a café, keeping up occasionally with her now-shrunken circle of friends, and hoping sometimes for a word from her daughter “but not in any strenuous way”. There are no satisfying promises of impending meetings here, no neat resolutions. Typically, within a Munro short story, the moment that one anticipates and believes one is being led towards has little place. Often it doesn’t happen at all or if it does, it passes the reader by quickly. It is never really the point. It is in the quiet, expansive spaces between these moments that her stories truly breathe.

There is a section a little way into the remembrances Julieta pours into her letters to Antía as atonement for her past silence and which allow us to see Ugarte occupying her younger, livelier self. In it, Julieta takes her two-year-old daughter to visit her parents and during her time there observes her mother’s failing physical state and senses her father’s closeness to the woman who looks after her mother and helps around their house. This segment initially seems like a loose fit, adding little by way of explanation or understanding of the circumstances around Xoan’s death, the absence of which is a palpable source of resentment for Antía. But it has two significant and particularly Almodóvarian scenes establishing the ties, love and support extended through the matrilineal line. In the first, Sara (Susi Sánchez) in a sudden moment of clarity that fleetingly clears up the cloud of illness that surrounds her wakes up and recognizes Julieta next to her. Perched on the bed together, leaning, the two women dotingly gaze at the sleeping toddler. In the second, Julieta steps out into the sun holding Antía in one hand and Sara—dressed brightly, her hair done, and with lipstick and large shades on—on the other, the moment ending in a frame that situates the three together, a sunny family portrait.    

This 8-minute section adapts Munro’s second ‘Juliet’ story “Soon” which ends quietly and devastatingly with Juliet turning away from her mother when the latter in her weakened, isolated and excitable state looks to her for reassurance. Munro through her clear, astute observations offers a glimpse in this story into the changeable nature of the parent-child bond, its interdependence, pleasures and indignations. Juliet’s abandonment of her mother comes to parallel her own abandonment years later by her daughter. Yet in Almodóvar’s version, one is never made to feel that Julieta is the one abandoning Sara. If anything, her brief visit seems to momentarily awaken something in Sara that is slowly but surely dimming. It is as if Julieta is the only one able and willing to draw her mother out one last time, to make her feel alive and of the world again. The scene following the one above in fact sees her laying the blame expressly on her father for what she sees as his adulterous and neglectful behaviour towards Sara. She even reports on the situation to Xoan later but there is hardly a sense that she holds herself accountable for not being a part of it. When guilt and the fear of being left alone grip Julieta later in the film as her daughter prepares to leave, she thinks of the man on the train who ended his life after her rebuff and of Xoan who was killed by a storm in the sea soon after her accusation and dismissal of him but not of her mother.   

The point of this parental interlude then are those scenes with Sara, a sombre echo of similar moments of female solidarity from earlier films like Volver (2006) and The Flower of My Secret (1995). Almodóvar himself has spoken often of his own mother’s formative influence on his work and of having grown up amongst women whose lives, pursuits and relationships taught him much about the strength and comfort to be found in a shared sense of community, and his films repeatedly recreate and reiterate this idea. Mothers—protectors, supporters, keepers of secrets—abound in his films. Even last year’s Pain and Glory, his tender and most autofictional work to date has a vibrant early scene recording and celebrating female togetherness forged by stories, songs and laughter.     

“Soon” explores a typical Munro theme: the young woman who returns to her hometown expecting acceptance finds that her somewhat freer ways of living and thinking—her scholarly nature and lack of faith, her unmarried motherhood—are met with disapproval and disdain. Present also are the author’s razor-sharp insights into the insidious ways in which our awareness of class differences seeps into and lodges itself in our complacent, liberal minds. None of this finds place in Julieta. The point here though is not what is retained or lost from the original but rather why.        

Absolving his heroine of filial guilt allows Almodóvar to focus squarely on her desertion and maternal longing. Julieta’s role and treatment as a mother overpowers her daughterly duties. She does of course reflect on her own culpability in refusing in the past to speak to Antía about her father and is astounded by how little she has known of her daughter, preoccupied as she was with her own anguish. But the depths and extent of her despair which consumes her and the film leaves us with no choice but to align our sympathies with those of the director whose consistent devotion towards mothers, both cinematic and real, has shaped so much of his cinema and lent his works their trademark flavour, and sense of excess and drama.

In her writings, Alice Munro has frequently revisited what she has called her rather complex relationship with her own mother. Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease at an early age, her mother continued to be a sickly but dominant presence in her early years the remorse around whose abandonment has occasionally fed the writer’s incisive prose, sometimes in the guise of fiction and sometimes not. Writing as she did from her vantage point of a daughter, and given how much her own path and experiences enriched and informed her work, it makes sense that the short story offers room for the daughter’s introspection. The works of both artists—Munro and Almodóvar—draw in small and big ways from their personal narratives. And so, while the film puts an end to the terrible silence in the mother’s life, offering at long last the possibility of a reunion, these stories from the collection turn on their marvellously evocative title exploring what it is to be a runaway from one’s own mother. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time,” Munro writes towards the end of “Dear Life”. We never find out if Antía truly does the same. But one suspects that it is not her forgiveness that the director is after.


Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Sucheta Chakraborty

Sucheta Chakraborty is an independent writer and editor based in Mumbai. Her articles on cinema have appeared in publications like The Hindu, Helter Skelter Magazine, Firstpost, Scroll, Mubi Notebook and Senses of Cinema. She is also the co-author of a monograph on the Mumbai Film Festival published by HarperCollins India in 2018.