The La Mancha region of Spain is harsh, dry, and mostly flat, with a variable climate and powerful eastern winds. It’s best known as the home of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but the region also gave us Pedro Almodóvar, and it forms part of the setting for his latest film, Volver (“to return”). The film contains allusions to Don Quixote in its frequent shots of windmills — actually “wind parks” full of sleek, modern, all-white wind turbines, as if to say that this is an entirely new era and the old expectations no longer apply. Volver’s central family comes from the village of Alcanfor de las Infantas (which translates as “camphor of the princesses,” camphor being, significantly, a substance used both medicinally and in embalming, and which can also be poisonous if ingested). The region’s winds power those turbines, drive frequent wildfires, and, we’re told, lead to madness. Alcanfor de las Infantas, it’s said, has the highest per-capita rate of insanity in all Spain.
To mention almost any element of Volver’s plot is risk divulging too much. Almodóvar spoons out vital information in small doses, establishing the characters’ situations and relationships through emotional confrontations rather than exposition. The characters all hold secrets, and the keeping of one secret often requires the creation of a new one. Suffice it to say that Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a cafeteria worker and devoted mother to 14-year-old Paula (Yohana Cobo), desperately trying to keep her family afloat despite the propensity her lazy, beer-swilling husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) has for getting fired. Raimunda’s older sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) is an unlicensed hairstylist operating a secret beauty shop out of her apartment, a childless divorcée who hasn’t heard from her ex-husband in several years. Their aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) is sweet but senile; when they go to visit her, she doesn’t recognize Sole and asks Raimunda if she’s had the baby yet, not realizing that the teenaged girl standing in front of her is that baby. Further, Paula insists that she still sees Irene (Carmen Maura, Almodóvar’s muse throughout the 1980s), though she’s been dead for three years, killed in a housefire that also claimed her husband.
At the film’s center is Cruz’s Raimunda, an overworked, put-upon woman in the tradition of many of Maura’s roles in early Almodóvar films, particularly Gloria in What Have I Done to Deserve This? American moviegoers can be forgiven for underestimating Cruz; she can appear limp and distracted when working in English, but in her native language she’s actually quite expressive. She has said that this was her most challenging role, requiring a greater emotional range than any character she’s played previously, and she’s risen to the challenge admirably. She’s at her best here, both sultry and pragmatic, and a worthy successor to Maura, who delivers another great performance that’s wildly different from her previous work with Almodóvar. Reunited with the director after 18 years, she’s far from the sexy tranny of Law of Desire or the neurotic diva of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Age has stolen some of Maura’s beauty, but it’s done nothing to reduce her wit or her passion.
Volver begins as a sort of domestic mystery, with thriller elements and a Herrmannesque score by Alberto Iglesias that evoke Hitchcock. But it gradually segues into a characteristically cheerful black comedy. There are two sudden deaths and another character preparing for a slow, lingering one, but there’s no sadness here. The film’s tone is buoyant, held aloft by the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and maternal, sororal, and filial love of its women. There’s low comedy involving both urination and flatulence, but it’s not handled in a boisterous let’s-see-how-gross-we-can-be way, as in Adam Sandler or pre-serious-thespian Jim Carrey movies. It’s presented in a gentle, unemphatic way that suggests a casual acceptance of the nature of the human body rather than the sniggering of a middle-aged adolescent. In many ways the film is more like Almodóvar’s great works of the mid-to-late ’80s than his recent films, which have been less irreverently wicked and therefore considered more mature by many critics. But there can be no doubt that this is the work of a mature artist at the top of his game.
Though in some ways Volver can be seen as Almodóvar’s return to familiar ground after those forays into darker, more serious territory, it is other ways an expansion on some of his recurrent themes. It goes further than any of his previous films in constructing a gynocentric universe in which men are inessential at best and monstrous at worst, almost a pestilence visited upon the film’s women. As a critic who has often decried sexist attitudes toward women, I feel some obligation to acknowledge what might be called Almodóvar’s misandry. But as a man raised by two strong women — a grandmother deserted by an abusive alcoholic and a mother stuck in an unhappy marriage to a pothead layabout — there’s little, save for the film’s most extreme plot contrivance, that doesn’t hit home. There are many good men in the world, perhaps even as many as there are bad, but I find little in my own experience to invalidate Almodóvar’s view of our gender. And I’m fortunate enough to have two very good reasons to agree that many women — and especially mothers — are as strong, independent, and occasionally crazy as the women in Volver.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Volver / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()