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Where's the rest of Almodovar's 'Julieta'?

There's a very good chance the ending of "Julieta" will drive you crazy.

The film was directed by remarkable Spanish director Pedro Almodovar who now prefers to be called only by his last name, like Liberace.

After the Buffalo screening of the film, a member of the audience asked me with comic earnestness "Did they cut the final 10 minutes off that movie? Shouldn't there be another scene at the end?"

By the ordinary laws of cinematic narrative, there should indeed have been a final scene to give some emotional payoff to the audience as it walks out into the parking lot. And that's exactly why this film--whose emotional plot, I assure you, is absolutely gripping--is an exhibit under glass of the essential differences in artistic forms.

The movie is based on a continuing story found in three short stories by the sublime Nobel Prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro: "Chance," "Soon" and "Silence." (Munro herself made a personal selection of her short stories and called it "Carried Away." It's published by Everyman's Library but without those stories.)

In theory, that's a great idea. In practice, it often doesn't work. Short stories--especially American and Canadian short stories since The New Yorker--often end inconclusively, with small moments whose anti-climax has a poetic after-ring that substitutes--often brilliantly--for a plot-ending climax. In those stories (think of Cheever, O'Hara, Salinger, Brodkey, the lack of an ending is the tonal equivalent of an ending.

But this is a film--stunningly photographed and, because Almodovar is at his best - directed with such emotional vividness that you will be captured completely by it.

We are, at the beginning, introduced to a woman who is about to move to Portugal with the man in in her life. But then, at the last second, she decides not to.

What has happened is this: she has, in the meantime, happened to run into her grown daughter's oldest and dearest friend. She has learned, in talking to her, that her daughter is not only alive and well but is married with three kids.

What we learn subsequently is that her daughter disappeared without a word many years before and that mother and daughter have been completely estranged and incommunicado ever since.

How, then, can she possibly move to Portugal? What if her daughter wants to get in touch with her at her last-known address? So much for moving to another town and starting another life.

Despite its origins in three separate stories, we are treated to episodes that go back and forth in Julieta's life--a haunting episode, aboard a train with a man whose wife is in a coma, the meeting with the sailor she married and who fathered her daughter.

Almodovar has often been an astonishing filmmaker, a fact which is in evidence throughout "Julieta"--in, for instance, sex glimpsed on the fly in a passing railroad compartment.

There are a lot of ill women in the film. It's a set of variations on themes of abandonment, rejection and withdrawal. And it is so arrestingly inviting at every train stop that you think the whole film is like a train traveling to a stop in the plot which everyone has known beforehand.

Not so. It is guilt-ridden melodrama. Every inch of it implies some sort of conclusion, a place for travelers to disembark.

And we're denied it. My first reaction is that somehow we were being denied one because Almodovar--who can be just that perverse--was denying us one because we're all just too conventional in our narrative needs.

Until I realized that what he was doing--trying to turn haunting Alice Munro stories into a Pedro Almodovar film--is a mixing of narrative that can't always work comfortably, or at all.

The acting is superb by Emma Suarez (who looks a little in this film like Fellini's wife and muse Giuliette Massina), Adriana as her beautiful younger self and Imma Cuestra, as her friend the artist.

This is nothing if not an odd movie to encourage people to see. It's a graft of artistic forms, one atop another, that doesn't really take. But just the attempt alone is more than a little compelling.



★ ★ ★ (out of 4)

Starring: Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grau, Imma Cuesta

Director: (Pedro) Almodovar

Running time: 99 minutes

Rated: R for nudity and sex.

The lowdown: A mother suddenly finds herself abandoned by her grown daughter in an adaptation of Alice Munro stories. In Spanish with subtitles.

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