dir: Pedro Almodóvar
I have to admit that I generally don’t much care for the films of Pedro Almodóvar. To be honest, I find most of them pretty goddamn pointless and irritating. I’m not saying he’s not a great director, it’s just that, like the double negative I used in the preceding part of this sentence, maybe his stuff just doesn’t work for me.
In the 90s the thing that stuck out about his flicks the most was the truly trashy nature of the action, with even trashier characters acting in ways which might seem perfectly natural to Spanish people, but looked utterly idiotic to me. When it was amusing it was okay, but generally the actions and dialogue spoken seemed beyond ridiculous.
And don’t get me started on the situations in his films where rape is practically used as a comedic plot device.
Maybe that soured me on him just a tad. At the very least, upon seeing Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) a bunch of years ago, I thought maybe he could make films that I could like. But then Bad Education (La Mala Educacion) came along, and I was reminded of all the reasons I can’t stand his goddamn trashy movies.
With all that preamble out of the way, I’d just like to say that I very much enjoyed Volver, finding it one of the most enjoyable flicks, Spanish or otherwise, that I’ve watched in a long while.
Sure it’s trashy, and it’s ludicrous, and it isn’t very different from any of the other flicks he’s ever made. But, this time, it really worked for me.
It is a story of women, about women, probably for women. Men are but peripheral to these women, yet they impact upon every major event of their women’s lives. The film begins with a scene at a cemetery, as a whole bunch of women tend to their parent’s and husband’s graves. Like much of the earth, like much of Spain, the film implies, the womenfolk live a life amongst and amidst other women because the men either don’t stick around too long or they die.
Or their wives murder them, whichever comes first.
Murder plays a big part in the story here, but not in the way you’d reasonably expect. There are murders to be had, but there’s no whodunit aspect or evading the long hairy arm of the law element to the story. These women do what they have to do to survive, in the eminently Catholic manner of steadfast Spanish women that Almodóvar wants to celebrate.
Hooray for murder indeed. Our main character is Raimunda, deliciously played by Penelope Cruz. She is a brash and brassy woman with a daughter to look after, three minimum wage jobs to hold down and a deadbeat husband to be irritated by.
On top of this, she lost her parents several years ago, and still has to deal with her mixed emotions over their departure. She did not part on the best of terms with either of them, but other factors also play in to her general aggressive approach towards life.
Raimunda has a mousy sister, Sole (Lola Duenas), and an aged aunt who’s getting too old for the huge place she lives in. Not only that, but she’s clearly crazy. I mean, she talks about Raimunda and Sole’s mum as if she’s still around. But she can’t be, because she’s dead, isn’t she?
Crazy talk. See, being devout Catholics, the people of this area are depicted as being practically paralysed by superstition. For them, even in this day and age, the idea that the dead return to take care of business isn’t completely ridiculous.
And there are so many dead people with grudges, surely. They must have organisers and PDAs chock full of to-do lists.
Aunt Paula’s health is in decline, but apart from Raimunda’s concerns, one of Aunt Paula’s neighbours is there to look after her. Agustina (Blanca Portillo) seems to be pretty ill, but she’s also in mourning for her mother, who seems to have gone missing around the same time as Raimunda’s parents died.
There are a lot of mysteries abounding. Who has been helping Aunt Paula, someone who the neighbours think is a ghost? What happened to Agustina’s mother? Who is Raimunda’s daughter’s father? And where is the deadbeat? Where has Raimunda’s husband gone? And how is Raimunda going to solve all the mysteries occurring around her, whilst trying to run a restaurant she doesn’t own in order to make some extra cash?
And why is Raimunda lugging a freezer around, renting a van, and buying a pick and shovel?
The mysteries abound, and, as the title would imply, (Volver means to return), someone or something is going to have to make a comeback in order for there to be a bit of closure in all these people’s lives.
The story isn’t really the gold material here. It’s the stuff of pure melodrama, and has all the Almodóvar trademarks you’ve come to know and love (loathe in my case) if you’ve been following his career for a while: plot elements such as mistaken identity, rape, incest, women threatening to scratch each other’s eyes out, and melodrama so melodramatic as to seem lifted dripping from soap operas and daytime talkshows.
But the trashiness of the story doesn’t detract from the lusty, earthy nature of this tale of women’s lives. I don’t think it’s at all remotely believable, but the actresses invest their characters with life, especially the two sisters, Agustina and, insert ghost-like noises her, Raimunda’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who is played by one of the titans of Spanish cinema.
Penelope Cruz, an actress I generally find irritating at best and downright fucking painful at worst, is an absolute delight as Raimunda. As bad as she is in Hollywood flicks, and as repugnant as the notion is that she ever had any kinds of relations - physical, Scientological or otherwise with Tom Cruise - she is triply good here. As a somewhat messy and abrasive personality, she is as circumstances have made her. She is devoted to her daughter and to her auntie, but many elements of her past have made her the brassy bitchy broad that she is, and it was impossible for me not to fall in love with the character.
Raimunda, Sole, Agustina, Paula, Irene and every other women in the story are linked by more than gender. Initially, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imply that the link is purely that they were screwed over by men, in many cases by the same man. What this flick links them by is the scary concept that us men are basically good for only a few things in the lives of women, and that our presence ultimately is transient at best and malignant at worst. Of an important but never seen male character it is said of him that “he was born to bring misery to the lives of the women who loved him.”
Of course I don’t agree with the concept, but it helps to know where Almodóvar is coming from. For all the trashiness of his writing and directing, he has a strange adoration/worship of women as only a gay, transvestite Spanish director can. The passion with which he loves these characters, the love with which he depicts the bonds that straitjacket them and support them, is undeniable.
He approximates what he feels life is like for the women of the area of his upbringing, being the La Mancha region of Spain, with equal parts nostalgia and rage at the macho mentality of the men of the place, and an impatience with the small-mindedness of the people. But equally he clearly loves their determination, their self-sacrifice, their (possible) deep sadness for the wrongs they have wrought on those they love.
Had I been in a less generous mood, I probably would have hurled petrol on the screen and torched the theatre. You have to be in the right mood to tolerate these kinds of shenanigans on a screen, and you have to be in an even more generous mood to put up with being told that all men are dogs by a guy who thinks he’s one of the sisterhood.
I mean, I know we’re dogs, but we’re not supposed to let the ladies know that. Why can’t we maintain the illusion that it’s only some of us, and that the rest of us are basically okay? Stop giving our secrets away, Almodóvar, I’m warning you.
Still, if you entertain me as much with your next film, maybe I’ll call the contract off.
8 times I should probably have hated this flick but didn’t, and I don’t think it was because of Cruz’s bouncing breasts out of 10
“Were you always this big up front? You haven’t had some work done, have you?” – a cheery mother – daughter conversation, Volver.