2006Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Pénelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas
f ever a movie were widely heralded from a long way off, that would be Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Released last March in Spain, by September this film’s international din began to achieve seismic proportions. At Cannes, the inspired festival judges awarded Best Screenplay to Almodóvar and then simply bestowed Best Actress collectively on the film’s ensemble of women. Later that month, 350 film critics from 60 countries voted Volver the Fipresci Grand Prix for the year’s best film. State-side, September also saw the cinematic version of Paul Revere’s ride in Viva Pedro!, the ambitious theatrical re-launch of eight previous films in brand new prints, amounting to a traveling Almodóvar mini-fest. Viva Pedro! invited us to bone up on his body of work and ensure the best possible reception—after a final warning flash on the horizon at New York’s Film Festival last month—for Volver’s theatrical bi-coastal opening weekend, with a full nationwide roll-out planned for the winter holidays.
After all that, how ironic that Volver is Almodóvar’s most immediately accessible, sweetly transparent, and beguilingly down-to-earth film yet.. From the opening scene, in which we begin to meet the film’s women, energetically tending family graves, including their own, to a decidedly cheerful tune, there is a sense of delicious conspiracy. It’s as though Almodóvar has been granted entrance to the world of women’s secrets and in turn somehow stands aside, allowing his women to reveal themselves on-screen, passing those secrets on to us.
His own notes about Volver confirm that this is true in concrete and metaphoric senses alike. The film’s title is often translated literally as the verb “to return,” but besides having chosen a word that slides easily into an earthy pun for English-speakers, Almodóvar himself uses the slightly more colloquial and evocative phrase “coming back.” He reports his sisters acted as advisers about village life in his family’s home region of La Mancha and regarding details of home hair salons, making meals, and house-cleaning. He recalls his own childhood’s “happiest memories” as a toddler with his mother at a river’s edge among women doing laundry—and therefore Pénelope Cruz’s Raimunda magnanimously buries her husband on the riverbank where they met as children. In the character of Agustina (Blanca Portilla), the village’s buzz-cut first hippie, who grows her own weed and knows Raimunda’s family like her own, he invokes the “solidarity of neighboring women” who most aided his own mother in her later years. In an over-arching way, he says he’s “come back” to women and to maternity itself as the source of his art.
“Most importantly,” he says, since this is La Mancha, the dead mother comes back, too. That would be Irene (Carmen Maura), mother of the sisters Raimunda and Sole (Lola Dueñas), grandmother of Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Quite practically, Irene has come back to help her own frail elderly sister, Tía Paula (Chus Lampreave), with her cooking, though it turns out, she also seeks Raimunda’s forgiveness for significant old hurts and omissions. Because this will be the most difficult and wrenching reunion, as well as the one most flooded with relief, Raimunda is the last to know Irene is back. Irene reveals herself to the lonelier and mousier of the sisters first, after both assume their elderly aunt’s matter-of-fact statements about Irene’s cooking are some combination of harmless dementia and provincial superstition. A bit wild-haired at first from her journey back to life, Irene then ensconces herself with home hair-dresser Sole, who gives her a cute cut and a tint and puts her to work with customers. She frets about Raimunda’s discovering her, hides in car trunks and under beds, and is an easy confidante to her granddaughter, who accepts her existence without fuss.
This granddaughter has just been through worse. Volver’s few men are notable for their absences, departures, and disappearances. There’s the restaurant owner who’s sweet on Raimunda, but conveniently leaves town so that she can take over his café herself in a burst of sunny industry (for those who know the old melodrama Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford and Ann Blythe as another mother and daughter in the restaurant business, Almodóvar’s own comparison of the two films is both witty on several levels and immensely more optimistic). There’s the young filmmaker for whom she does this so she can feed his crew, a bit of manna from the sky just when she’s really broke. There’s Raimunda’s deceased father, about whom more will be revealed as you watch. And there’s her husband Paco, ill-tempered and ill-fated.
Early in the story, young Paula dispatches her father with a kitchen knife when his beer-fuelled disgruntlement over losing his job turns to lechery. Arriving home to a bloody kitchen, Raimunda instantly takes Paula’s side. This leads to one of those scenes that plays havoc with simple, one-track response. Several reviewers have cited the moment when Raimunda, her clean-up operation interrupted by a caller at the door, shrugs off the blood smeared on her throat as “women’s troubles.” I still marvel at Raimunda mopping up the floor on her knees with paper towels—shot from above to take in what Almodóvar calls “one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema”—and rolling over the body, giving her head a disgusted little shake, and zipping up his fly. This scene sets the stage for Paco’s body’s progress, stashed in a freezer at the bustling, re-opened café and eventually laid to rest by the river dug by another stalwart female ally, the whore Regina.
Volver is a wonderfully effective tale. In this regard, the narrative style matches the content. The La Mancha villagers accept the presence of returned dead among them as perfectly natural. And this film’s brand of storytelling is what we recall from childhood, in which things happen simply in order to move us along to the next good stuff. So the sisters travel between Madrid and remote La Mancha by simply bustling back and forth across a plain full of modern wind-mills—while this inevitably recalls Quixote’s quests, there is little tendentiousness about it all. This matter-of-factness is, of course, what allows Almodóvar to mix tones and genres so effectively—that, and his evidently large spirit. Good-night Irene, good-night.
Volver is currently playing in limited release.