Director / Writer: Pedro Almodovar / DoP: Jose Luis Alcaine / Editor: Jose Salcedo
Cast: Penelope Cruz / Carmen Maura / Lola Duenas / Blanca Portillo / Yohanna Cobo / Chus Lampreave
For Sale: Ford Granada 2.0 GL Estate. Red. One careful owner. (Haunted). Offers.
What I know about Pedro Almodovar’s body of work isn’t much, but off the top of my head? Spanish. Gay. In his (late?) Sixties, thereby making him someone who grew-up under Franco’s regime, which probably spelt all kinds of difficult for the man. Bit of an auteur, revered in Spain and with a large cult-following worldwide. Writes & directs personal films like Volver, that cover aspects of the Catholic faith’s impact on society and the individual, though isn’t afraid to venture into farce, when the spirit moves him. He writes strong female characters and like Mike Leigh in the UK, or the Coen’s in the US, has a small company of regular actors, to whom he turns. How’s that?
All a bit sketchy, I admit, so I came to Volver with an open mind, heart and soul: I’m chuffed to report that all three got tickled by this picture, in one way or another. Oh, and know this, non-Spanish speakers: ‘Volver’ means ‘to return’: clue’s in the title.
The film opens on a windswept graveyard, as a crowd of women clean headstones, while a plangent torch-song trills on the soundtrack. Here we meet Raimunda (even this early, Penelope Cruz’s engagement with Almodovar’s writing is apparent) and her daughter Paula (newcomer Yohanna Cobo) as they brush leaves from the double grave of her parents, who died together in a fire, four years before. Her sister Sole (comedic foil and open-faced Lola Duenas) is helping, along with Agustina (compassionately drawn Blanca Portillo); a neighbour and long-standing family friend. Agustina’s here, as she has an empty plot with her name on to maintain; a plot that, if her shaved head and pallid expression are any guide, won’t be unfilled for much longer.
So far, then, it’s ticking all the boxes: strong women, embrace of religion, dark humour (I’d call having them clean these headstones, in the teeth of a constant Easterly breeze (okay: gale) a Sisyphean undertaking).
If that’s the prologue, Act One begins with this quartet visiting Aunt Paula’s house (a winning performance from Chus Lampreave); a dotty old thing, whose spectacles magnify her eyes to a size last seen on a pleading kitten. Dotty though she appears, she’s still – apparently – capable of making, bottling and labelling jars of home-made produce, that she foists upon both sisters, who’re then lumbered as they take their leave, to pop across the street to Agustina’s place. She and Raimunda have been friends since childhood; there’s a lot of history there, but right now, Agustina’s missing her own mother.
Literally, ‘the only hippie in the village’, she always had a history of disappearances, but her last appears final; strange coincidence that she vanished on the same day as the fire that killed Rai’s and Sole’s parents? No matter: at least Agustina’s got a jewellery box of ‘genuine plastic’ gewgaws to remember her by. She keeps her weed in there too, prompting one of the funniest lines in an oft-hilarious picture: ‘Every time I smoke a joint, I think of her’.
From here-on, there’s a whole chunk of business that I don’t want to get into, for fear of plot-spoiling. What I can say, is that when Rai finds her true calling in life, it’s doubly fortuitous, if not a little bittersweet. There’s also the small matter of the surprise return of Rai’s and Sole’s mother… Almodovar plays this straight, as I think he has to, with wide-eyed, bemused Sole first to see, what she believes, is a real ghost. This mood is punctured in a really farcical scene a little later, when her mum clambers from the boot of her Granada.
Almodovar takes his time in this picture, creating a touching mix of slow-burning melodrama and farce; setting up his dominoes with care, lest they fall too early and reveal too much. Farce, as Sole takes her mother into her (illegal) home-based hairdressing business, passing her off as a Russian immigrant and tragedy, as Agustina’s illness returns, leading her to make rash decisions that, she hopes, might force the issue of her mother’s disappearance.
Far from the campy mix of kitsch brashness and caricature I half-expected, Almodovar and his cast have the self-assurance to keep things no more than simmering and for that deftness of touch, I applaud all concerned. In Volver, Almodovar wrote a coterie of strong women, all flawed in their own ways, yet all shot-through with veins of goodness. In the decisions they make, they exhibit a latin passion, that’s both truthful to their society & culture, yet they cope with the consequences, with a heartening, matter-of-fact resolve, I found at times, dazzling to behold.
Every one of the main cast has done something criminal; in more than one case seriously criminal, that flouts Christian (and therefore) Catholic doctrine, yet Almodovar has somehow managed to make saints out of them all; these are real people, experiencing real (and not-so-real) problems, in creative, unorthodox circumstances. But these circumstances, although heightened to a farcical degree, are experienced by everyone in the village; a village plagued by the constant wind that has driven them close to madness. So, speaking as a resident in the UK, what I might consider wholly abnormal is, in Almodovar’s world, almost normal.
By now, Raimunda’s the only member of her family still unaware that her mother’s ‘back from the dead’, so it’s only a matter of time before Sole admits her Big Secret. Their delayed reunion is played with affecting tenderness on both sides, though it’s the first time we’ve seen her mum, Irene (sublime and long-standing Almodovar collaborator, Carmen Aura), adopt a serious – truly, serious – tone in the picture, as their shared secrets – and guilt – tumble out; THIS is Almodovar flipping those dominoes.
The film ends in the most poignant way, with Irene moving-in to care for Agustina in her final days. Almodovar plays this beautifully, with Irene administering morphine to a feverish Agustina and hovering over her, like a benevolent angel; a kindness to repay all the hurt and confusion that Irene’s own actions had set-in motion. I thought it a touching, sincere moment of repentant love of a fellow human being, in need of solace: as I said, these women might’ve done Bad Things (and apparently gotten away with them) but they’re still Saint-like; in Almodovar’s world, that might be enough.
All that said, the picture’s not without its problems: while I appreciate the need to round-out Rai’s character, choosing to have her occupy a friend’s restaurant, allows for additional, random plot tangents that only pad the running time. Another, is the film’s treatment of its men. From the opening in the graveyard, where (mostly) widows are spring-cleaning their husbands, this is a film where men Die Early, or leave for greener pastures. They don’t stick around or, you know, get stuck in. So they’re weak; absent.
In his defence, Almodovar grew-up in a village not dissimilar to the one in the film, where economic reality forces everyone to make tough choices about where to live and work – and how to behave in the process. It’s entirely possible therefore, that the village IS a fair representation of his memory, as viewed through the looking glass of time.
Lastly, I want to commend Penelope Cruz, an actress who’s made little impression on me over the years. She’s sat on the periphery of the starry constellation spiralling at the back of my mind, as a contemporary Sophia Loren; a sultry latin beauty who steered the (often tricky) move to Hollywood.
Watching her in Volver, I came away with a wholly different opinion, for she inhabits the part of Raimunda with such control, such passion, that I caught glimpses of her channeling the woman she might’ve become, pumped-cleavage and all, had acting not fallen her way. In other words, I could see a truth in her performance that’s elevated her to someone capable of so much more than the white-bread given to her by Hollywood over the years.
Little wonder, that since marrying and having a family with Javier Bardem, her only American film was a small part in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie… Now living back in Spain, she’s become a high-profile regular in local productions that fit-in with her new life and allow her to stretch-out as an actor: Almodovar’s confidence and belief rubbed-off in one of the greatest – though chaste – love stories between Master and Muse…
Don’t say that, Raimunda, or I’ll start crying. And ghosts don’t cry.