For all the expansion to be enjoyed in Pedro Almodóvar’s recent string of excellent films, his newest, Volver, is his narrowest effort since 1995’s rare misfire, The Flower of My Secret. After laboring with, and firmly executing, Bad Education’s labyrinthine noir (its convolutions span three decades of lies and betrayals and transsexuals and heroin) it’s fitting that Almodóvar would scale down to a story that, at bottom, only needs five principal sets and five principal characters. Even his broadened, widescreen palate is compressed within the frame: certain close-ups of his luminous cast are shot with such long lenses that a minor movement by the actress fuzzies up her ears or her perfectly mangled coif like a distant spotlight straining to keep a stage actor lit. This technique reflects the precision one has come to expect, and take for granted, in each new joy Almodóvar gifts us.
This is a story of returns, just as the title tells us, but its chief subject is feminine (and provincial) rites, rituals and customs. Almodóvar’s allegiances have never been in doubt, and this is as bald a love letter as the nakedly titled All About My Mother. Yet Volver has no time for men, even if they’re trying to be women like the earlier film’s transvestite-hooker, Agrado. From the hilarious and poignant opening tracking shot across a wind-wrecked cemetery full of old maids tending and tidying faithful headstones, the screen is congested with women.
At the center is Penélope Cruz, delivering a stunning, full-bodied and nuanced performance, able to swoon teary-eyed on a dime or dig in and get dirty if need be, as the fiery Raimunda. Many have used Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce heroine as a shorthand comparison but it’s only apt in a typical Almodóvar fashion: he takes an archetypal character from a film he adores and throws it into his personal blender to twist the character into the form that suits his story best. Raimunda is Mildred as much as Ignacio-Angel from Bad Education is Madeline-Judy from Vertigo.
Raimunda and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo is one to watch) find themselves without husband and father Paco (Antonio de la Torre, effectively vulgar in his two brief scenes) after an ugly incident lands a steak knife in his stomach. Naturally, they clean the murder up and, to save time, store him in deep freeze next door at a neighbor’s newly-abandoned restaurant. This prevents the girls from accompanying Raimunda’s sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas mouses her way to a rich epiphany), back home to La Mancha for the Aunt Paula’s wake (Chus Lampreave returns to Almodóvar in fine form, sporting raccoon gramma glasses and her singularly aloof comic timing), whom all three just visited at the film’s opening.
Back in La Mancha, Sole mourns with neighbor Augustina (Blanca Portillo, heartbroken and disintegrating), who kept a close eye on her aged neighbor. Augustina tells a crowded room of ladies (each eager to kiss the relative in a hilarious running gag) about the voice she heard at her door the night prior, alerting her to Aunt Paula’s death. This yields suspicion and intrigue but takes Sole into the kitchen to tell her to whom the voice belonged: Sole and Raimunda’s years-dead mother, Irene, played with fearless pluck by a former muse of Almodóvar, the great Carmen Maura.
This not so brief first act-outline might cast a dour image in the mind, but in Pedro’s hands, nothing could be further from the truth. Volver, despite its fear of (and a tendency to dwell on) death, is alive with color, music, ebullient smiles, an honest plea for community, fart jokes and ripe cleavage.
Almodóvar said it first: “Penélope is at the height of her beauty. It’s a cliché but in her case it’s true. (Those eyes, her neck, her shoulders, her breasts!! Penélope has got one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema).” Then he filmed it. And I love it. There’s a shot early on, filmed from the ceiling, of Cruz’s Raimunda washing dishes that looks straight down her already low-cut shirt. This typifies Pedro’s adoration but, as always, reveals something else besides the voluptuous gift on the right half of the screen. After washing one dish, Raimunda picks up a steak knife and holds it phallus-style away from her stomach, pointing to the left of the screen. In this ten second cut Pedro shows off his star’s lusty vivacity and aligns himself with her at the same time, showing his affinity for both the actress he’s employed and the character he’s created.
Almodóvar also said this film is entirely about (& altogether inspired by) his mother and in some respects yet more autobiographical than Bad Education’s flashbacks. The riverbed town in this film is his childhood town where the inhabitants still believe in the rebirth-ressurection-return of dead loved ones. As Almodóvar has made himself one with Raimunda (by way of steak knife), we can see in her character the apologies he still feels he owes his mother and a plea for reprieve from the ugliness of adolescence underneath the obvious longing for her presence. In the same confessional essay, Almodóvar writes, “I have filled a vacuum, I have said goodbye to something (my youth?) to which I had not yet said goodbye and needed to, I don’t know. There is nothing paranormal in all this. My mother hasn’t appeared to me, although, as I said, I felt her presence closer than ever.”
What grounds these surreal elements, and keeps them from blowing up into telenovela-melodrama camp, is Almodóvar’s sure handed storytelling. While the early pictures in his career embraced a camp of the abject stance, over the 15 features he made leading up to Volver, his writing skills have only improved, project after project, to this new plateau. Prone to genre-bending from the beginning, with a gonzo comic sensibility flush with cum jokes and heavy breathing, his cinema has indeed matured into a layered paella that yields serving after serving of perfected yet playful construction. By whittling down his ingredients to the essentials, this film is rendered more intimate and heartfelt, each movement timed and calculated yet wholly natural. Volver isn’t as explosively inspired as his last three pictures (or as subversive in content, despite its ghost story shadows and cold blooded murder) yet its skill is undeniable.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.