As a little girl growing up in Spain, Adriana Ugarte dreamed of starring in a Pedro Almodóvar movie. Now, just over 25 years later, she is joining the rarefied ranks of actresses who have helped bring to life the women who teem in Mr. Almodóvar’s imagination.
In “Julieta,” loosely based on short stories by Alice Munro, Ms. Ugarte plays the younger version of the title character, whose life takes a dramatic turn after a tryst on a train. The film, Mr. Almodóvar’s 20th feature, is a return to drama and his “cinema of women,” as he has called it.
When it comes to Mr. Almodóvar and his female characters, Ms. Ugarte said recently, “It’s a mystery, but he can feel how we feel and how we are.”
Over the course of nearly 40 years, Mr. Almodóvar has drawn inspiration from wide-ranging sources — Alfred Hitchcock, B-movies, Pina Bausch, to name just a few. But it’s his fascination with women and his ability to conjure memorable female characters that remain constants.
Now, as the Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to Mr. Almodóvar with a retrospective of his work that runs through Dec. 17, and as “Julieta” arrives in theaters in the United States on Dec. 21, he and many of the most prominent actresses in his career have taken a closer look at the role of women in his life and films.
“I feel that I can tell a richer and more entertaining story with women,” Mr. Almodóvar said, his signature shock of thick white hair and mischievous eyes in full evidence during the interview at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan. He spoke softly and quickly, in a mixture of Spanish and English.
“I will write male and female characters,” he said, “but I do find at least in Spanish culture, women to be more vivacious, more direct, more expressive, with a lot less of a sense of being fearful of making a fool of themselves.”
La Frances Hui, associate curator in the film department at the Modern, said: “Almodóvar is someone who is very beloved by female actresses. He has an unusual ability to observe women with a real sense of empathy. He is able to highlight their emotions and their strengths, and he is often very funny. He shows women in a very different way than we usually see in cinema. The films that a director makes are a reflection of himself, and this is how he sees women.”
Conversely, Mr. Almodóvar often finds male characters limited. “I think that until very recently men in Spanish culture were quite corseted,” he said, with roles restricted to the Latin lover, the macho hero or the man of the house. “It’s taken quite a while to come to a point now where we can find different facets in male characters. Men are kind of the protagonist of epic stories, but really what I’m more interested in are stories that deal with the ordinary, with the every day.”
“Julieta,” which also stars Emma Suárez as the older version of the title character, centers on one such everyday relationship, that of a mother and daughter. With movies like “High Heels” (1991) and “All About My Mother” (1999), maternity is a familiar theme for Mr. Almodóvar. And it is perhaps fitting that his 20th returns to it.
“I was lucky to meet his mother when she was alive, and it helped me to understand a lot the way he is and the fascination he has for women and how well he knows women,” said Penélope Cruz, who has appeared in five of his movies. “He was raised by his mother and her sisters and neighbors, with a lot of women together. It’s a little bit of what you see in ‘Volver’” — his 2006 film about a family of women and a matriarch who reappears as a ghost — “and he was always watching and observing.”