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The life-changing consequences of 15 nights of hotel-room love are explored with delicacy and grace in Julia’s Decision, a chamber piece that seeks to bring to the screen the settling of the emotional accounts of a woman in the moments before she dies. Formally well-executed and played by its two leads, particularly by Marta Belaustegui, the film is unfailingly good-looking, honorable and elegant, but its formal beauty becomes a barrier to the emotional depths at which it strives. That said, Spaniard Norberto Lopez Amado’s second feature (he’s best-known as the co-director of the documentary How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?) is daring and dexterous enough to suggest that fests might well decide on Julia.
The overwhelmingly important decision of the title is revealed over the first few minutes. Julia (Belaustegui) arrives one rainy night in a hotel room in Madrid where she is soon joined by Inaki (Josean Bengoechea) and Mariela (Yolanda Ulloa), presumably from Dignitas, who have come to help her prepare for her death. After Marta drains her final glass, the film enters a trembling, exquisite world of dream and memory, though the narrative confusions and ambiguities which that might imply are mostly sidestepped by Rafa Russo’s script, which proceeds in a methodical and orderly fashion throughout and which is in fact a little too neatly put together.
The dreams and memories consist almost exclusively of Lander (Fernando Cayo, best-known to foreign audiences as the long-suffering husband of the grieving mother in Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage), with whom Marta held a fortnight-long love affair in this same hotel room in 1988. Through dialogues punctuated by sometimes overextended silences, we learn more about the couple’s lives before and after they met: about her being a pro athlete, about her learning that he was in fact a Basque terrorist (Spanish cinema of late is full of former Basque terrorists) and, crucially, about the child Julia had by Lander, but never met. This, it seems, was not just an old affair.
What initially looks as though it’s going to be an overwrought emotional drama becomes something more complex and searching. There are rich, grown-up themes to be explored here, about memory, motherhood and mourning, but there is an ever-present air of artifice about Julia’s Decision which invites the viewer to observe the situation from outside rather than participate. This starts with Amado’s own decision to film in black-and-white and extends to the overutilization of a Debussy-like, tinkling piano theme from Pedro Navarrete and dialogue which sometimes sounds recited: “Memory is an imaginary suitcase which holds only the essential,” Marta tells Lander at one point.
Conceptually, this is probably all fine — after all, anyone would want their final settling of accounts to be a good-looking, clean affair like this, with all the messy edges neatly tidied up, in which they’re speaking in the language of elegant proverbs — but as drama, it makes for a somewhat enervating experience. Only occasionally does the overexplanatory dialogue create a picture which engages on the human level, and one such moment is when Marta describes herself as counting out the birthdays of the son she has never met.
Juan Molina Temboury’s visuals are unfailingly attractive — though not always cliche-free, as with the constant shots of rain on windows, a handy index perhaps for the blurry nature of memory which is nevertheless still a visually threadbare. Briefly and thankfully the action moves beyond the hotel room by way of respite and into the stunning landscapes of the Basque country.
Belaustegui, a fine actress who has been systematically underemployed by Spanish cinema, does well to create a fully rounded Julia given the various technical straitjackets which surround her, plunging deeply into the nuances of her character in a way that Cayo doesn’t quite seem able to match. Though she occasionally borders on the histrionic, this is entirely coherent with the character of Julia as the viewer comes to know her.
Production company: Liquid Works
Cast: Marta Belaustegui, Fernando Cayo
Director: Norberto Lopez Amado
Screenwriter: Rafa Russo
Producer: Miguel Mesas
Executive producers: Carlos Diaz del Rio, Andres Perez
Director of photography: Juan Molina Temboury
Production designers: Anton Laguna, Manuel Ledena
Costume designer: Natacha Fernandez Gallardo
Editor: Pablo Marchetto
Composer: Pedro Navarrete
Sales: Liquid Works
Not rated, 85 minutes
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