The Junk Food of Writing

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Volver (Almodovar, 2006)


An obligatory image of Penelope Cruz's beaming smile and gorgeous cleavage.

Despite the international success of his recent output, including All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education, Pedro Almodovar, Spain's most prominent director, seems to be returning to his kitschy, yet oddly affecting, roots with Volver. Therefore, the title, which literally translates into the Spanish infinitive "to return," holds a double meaning.

The plot revolves around the supernatural return of Irene (Carmen Maura, an Almodovar regular), mother of Raimunda (a luminous Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), and the film itself serves as a homecoming for Almodovar. Career-long aficionados and new appreciators of the auteur will likely rejoice in Volver's flippant pizzazz, which mixes elements of Almodovar's earlier, campier productions and his deeper modern melodramas.

Volver is certainly not as heavy as Almodovar's most contemporary efforts, but this frothy concoction endures and resonates despite its lighter weight. It searches for truth and insight in a more focused area of emotional complexity: mother/daughter relationships.

The slickly stylish Volver fits perfectly into Almodovar's oeuvre, even though there is an alarming lack of transvestites. Almodovar compensates for this dearth of pre and post-op trannies with his trademark vivacity, sympathy and sanguine-soaked sets. He creates a pervasively mystical atmosphere in which to set his absurd story involving three generations of women coping with the past and the bizarre nature of life in a small Spanish village. Raimunda, Sole and Raimunda's twiggy daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), react in vastly different ways to the unexpected and paranormal arrival of the deceased Irene. Their reactions reflect the tumultuous relationships they had when Irene was alive. On the surface, Irene's reappearance is due to promises she left unfulfilled.

She regretted her semi-neglectful parenting upon death and now wishes to stay on earth as a compassionate guardian, mostly to help her daughters with life's troubles-mainly their "poor luck with men." Despite her compassion, she still isn't going to be picking up her World's Greatest Mother trophy anytime soon; she'll have to settle for a tacky mug. It's best to think of her as a maternal Casper, but also with flesh, long hair and female anatomy.

Volver is, undoubtedly, a picture made for primarily female audiences, albeit not in the shallow way an archetypical romantic comedy is. It's a colorful ode to domesticity, feminine familial bonds and dealing with haunting repressed memories. This discreetly feminist production isn't designed to be enjoyed by only one gender, though.

Despite its perpetual awareness of mortality (the film even opens in a graveyard), Volver never becomes overbearingly morose; it maintains a playfully dark tone. Most of Volver's charm lies in the darting glances its capable cast surreptitiously and assuredly shoots each other. At Cannes, the ladies of Volver were collectively awarded the Best Actress award. While this may seem a cop-out, not to mention indecisive of the jury, the performances do coexist in a community where every actress understands the nuances of her character and the way she relates and interacts with the other women. Although this is an ensemble piece, Penelope Cruz is individually incandescent.

With a strong character, mojitos and some cleavage, Cruz proves that she's most comfortable and well-suited for cinema in her native language. It would not be a shame if she never appeared in another English-language movie, as long as that guaranteed her presence in copious amounts of Spanish-language films. Dressed in radiant reds and purples and a face capable of extreme emotional range, Cruz seamlessly glows through Raimunda's life highs and lows. Similar to Sophia Loren, Cruz has the capacity to play a benevolent mother, daughter and sister and, without making it icky, remain a sex symbol. Her character is realistically flawed and Cruz handles Raimunda's imperfections with unapologetic ease.

In the narrative department, however, Volver ultimately runs into the same problem most of Almodovar's recent films have; it's a bit too jammed in the end. The narrative bounces smoothly throughout, yet the final twists and exposition are not given much space to breathe and shock in the film's hurried conclusion. Fortunately, what preceded it is an exuberant, lively bit of luscious fun.

While Almodovar's storytelling skills aren't always in top form, he visually commands every frame. The film's heart is always in the right place; it's refreshingly thoughtful. Volver's coda may seem overloaded, but due to its affectionate humanism, endearing characters and tender pathos, it earns nearly every sentiment and dry slice of humor presented to the audience. It's a lovely film, as warm as the Spanish sun.

7 Comments:

  • Marvelous commentary, although I obviously disagree about the excess baggage towards the end. You've done a lot of justice to this superb film though, especially to Cruz's rich and spot-on performance (which I have trouble describing.) Sounds like you want to give it much higher tough (hint hint.)

    And I tagged you. Do that movie meme!

    By Blogger Ali, at 1:47 PM  

  • /much higher THOUGH.

    Sigh.

    By Blogger Ali, at 2:53 PM  

  • I've stated from the beginning that it's a strong B; I nearly saw it again before I wrote this review, and--upon repeat viewing--I'm sure my grade would magically become a B+.

    I've been meaning to fill in that survey (mostly because I want to read the responses you and Jesse wrote, but I refuse to until I complete it myself), but whenever I sit down to write, I feel as if I should be working on the two 10+ page essays that are due within three days (yikes!).

    Of course, I'm current stuck in the internet's sticky web, so I'm not making much progress on those papers anyway.

    Let the procrastination continue!

    By Blogger Nick M., at 3:18 PM  

  • /my grade WILL magically

    /I'm CURRENTLY stuck

    We all make mistakes, Ali -- I just make more of them.

    By Blogger Nick M., at 3:20 PM  

  • Nick that was lovely.

    This is my favorite film of the year so far, and 1 of 2 I really love.

    By Blogger JavierAG, at 8:19 PM  

  • Beautiful review. Wonderful film, and I love how you've described Penelope's trascendent performance.

    By Blogger Emma, at 10:04 AM  

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