Whenever I write some sort of context for a director, an industry or a series of films with which I am not entirely familiar, I feel like something of a fake. Even if what I’m saying is true, I feel bad for saying it if I’ve not experienced it first hand.
Still, what I have to say about Pedro Almodovar before I kick into the Volver review is necessary. Don’t worry about it!
Pedro Almodovar has fashioned a career largely on making films about mothers. Until her death, Almodovar’s mother made cameo appearances in many of his films. This important relationship is the backbone of his stories, and it appears that he hasn’t deviated much from this path with the exception of his previous effort, Bad Education.
Volver combines Almodovar’s mothering theme with that of the various social problems of Spain to create an effective drama/comedy that showcases Penelope Cruz in a role that she describes as her “first real woman”. Almodovar has cast his original muse, Carmen Maura, against Cruz in something that I would describe as a full circle for his oeuvre if I knew that to be true.
It’s just a pity that they didn’t translate the title to “The Return” or something, because Volver is a really unfortunate name in English speaking society.
Raimunda (Cruz) visits her Aunt Paula after a trip to clean her mother’s grave. Aunt Paula seems to believe that Raimunda’s mother is alive, and that Raimunda is still pregnant. (“Did you have the baby yet? You’re looking so slim!” “Yes, Aunt Paula. Fourteen years ago.”)
This meeting with Aunt Paula leads to Raimunda becoming a single mother, and eventually to the titular return of her own mother … from the grave!
Volver is a clever movie. It plays on the superstitions of people and, because it is a movie, the audience is able to accept them entirely out of hand. The sort of suspension of disbelief that allows us to accommodate ridiculous ideas is rewarded again and again by instances that can be explained through supernatural occurrences but have much more satisfactory, simple and realistic solutions.
One of my favourite types of cinema is the kind where women cry at each other all the time; the anime Rose of Versailles reached its apex when Oscar and Marie Antoinette had a crying face off. On this front, Volver certainly does not disappoint. Cruz is perfect as Raimunda, fighting off complex emotions at all turns. The horror that she puts into the horrible parts of the film and the sadness that she puts into reflecting upon her troubled past are marvellous, as are the humour and vulgarity that she injects into the role.
You get the notion that Cruz, believing in this character, really felt her role. Of course, she is not the only good actor in this movie. Carmen Maura contributes an emotional but comedically absurd mother for not just Raimunda, but her other daughter Sole (the more superstitious of the two, and the one who was closer to her mother in life).
It’s difficult to say too much about Volver without giving it all away. Its strength is in its subtle revelations and the slow realisation of all of its characters. To say that is by turns funny, dramatic and elegiac should do it all.
Having not seen an Almodovar film in the past, I wasn’t quite used to the cuts that he put on display. Some of it seemed too subtle, some of it too abrupt. It took me quite a while to get used to the pacing, but once I did it was all worth it.
To say anything more would be to spoil some of the best cinematic surprises of 2006. I know it sounds like the cop out of a critic with writer’s block, but Volver is a film worth discovering for yourself.