Thursday, December 21, 2006


Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish film auteur, Pedro Almodovar, has never shied away from death in the past. But never has he immersed himself and his viewers in so much of it before either, as he has in his latest work, VOLVER. Within the first ten or twenty minutes of the film, each scene revolves around death and how it surrounds us in time and space. Several women, including VOLVER’S heroines Raimunda and Sole (Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas), clean the tombstones of their departed relatives during the opening credits. The graves these two clean belong to their parents who died in a fire four years prior. Their next stop after polishing the resting places of their parents, a visit to their aunt, whose visit here on earth is nearing its end. While on their visit, they drop in next door for tea with their aunt’s neighbor, Augustina (Blanco Portillo), who has cancer. She could die just as easily as Raimunda and Sole the next day but her fate seems more sealed than theirs. These sisters, neither one of which cares to deal with death, are haunted by past deaths, facing present ones and mentally avoiding those that wait in their future. The onslaught of death culminates when Raimunda returns home from her hard day to find her husband dead, more specifically, killed. Bear in mind, this is still the first twenty minutes. The seeds of complexity that enrich most of Almodovar’s work have been sewn but they too seem to die before their time. After Raimunda makes temporary arrangements for her husband’s body in an industrial-sized freezer, she seems to forget him there. The build is abruptly halted and what follows is a string of odd choices and events that make for an uncharacteristically lifeless experience.

The day after her husband’s death, Raimunda finds herself unexpectedly running a restaurant. For a moment, I feared I was about to be subjected to a WOMAN ON TOP sequel. Luckily, in the hands of the right director, Cruz can cook on screen without ruining the recipe. One could argue that what Raimunda does after she dumps her husband in the freezer is exactly what she’s been doing since her parents died. She is avoiding both reality and her pain. Almodovar will have none of that. His hand is always present and while Raimunda finds new life in a growing opportunity, a painful figure from her past returns. This figure is her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). It is unclear whether her mother is back from the dead or just never died but what is clear is that Raimunda will now have the chance to face off against the demons she believed to be buried with her parents. The uncertainty of Irene’s life/death status brings out Almodovar’s playful side. You can feel him laughing at his characters’ confusion and all the while, laughing at ours as well. Yet at no time does he belittle the overwhelming impact of the return of a relative long thought to be dead.

The women of VOLVER continue the Almodovar tradition of being complex dichotomies of fragility and strength. Raimunda is a hard working mother who holds down as many jobs as is necessary to keep her family comfortable. Her happiness is never a priority though she seems content just being there for her daughter (Yohana Cabo). Cruz plays her with a sassy exterior protecting a sad little girl interior. She is a captivating beauty but her beauty overshadows the mess she should be considering everything she has to deal with. As the grand matriarch, Irene is perhaps the most fascinating of the bunch. She has spent the lest few years taking care of her sister and her return to Madrid allows her to get to know Sole again and make amends with Raimunda. Mothering people is what she does best yet her past with Raimunda, including an incident that scarred Raimunda without Irene ever knowing about it, has haunted her so intensely that a return was inevitable. Reluctantly, Raimunda has adopted her mother’s nurturing instincts despite herself. Watching her daughter face some of the same struggles she had to, forces her to face her past but neatly set it aside to ensure her daughter’s safety.

VOLVER is both enjoyable and meaningful to a degree but, like the lives of the people on the screen, it feels unfinished and melodramatic for the sake of the viewer and not the story itself. There is a fascination with trash television that runs throughout VOLVER. People cannot stand it but cannot look away, regardless of how it stumps their sleep or turns their stomachs. In some ways, VOLVER could be adapted into a trashy television miniseries. Somewhere buried beneath all of this death lies a secret. It is a secret that would only cause pain were it to be dug up. It is a secret that does not need to be shared with the rest of the world. Yet it is also a secret that, no matter how twisted it is, it needs to be unearthed so that all involved can move on. And while it is true that secrets that go to the grave cannot be kept secret by covering them with six feet of earth, these same secrets cannot be relied upon to give a film its ultimate meaning.

No comments: