This is the first post in what I hope will become a semi-regular feature around here ... something I've been meaning to do for a while, but just haven't gotten off the proverbial ground thus far. Those privy to some of IVG's passions other than politics and flowers already know that I'm more than a bit of a film connoisseur, especially with regard to European Cinema, particularly France and Spain. And I can hold forth on this subject for hours on end, so you're forewarned ...
This week's pick is Pedro Almodóvar's most recent film, VOLVER, which garnered Penélope Cruz a much deserved Oscar nomination last year. This is the film that cemented (for me at least) Cruz as an actress at the top of her form, in a film by a director clearly at the top of his form after some twenty seven years of film making.
If you're not familiar with Pedro Almodóvar's work, you're in for a multivalent cinematic treat ... with films spanning such diverse subjects as hypersexual obsessive love (witness Matador, Law of Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), to maternal Douglas Sirk-esque "women's films" such as High Heels, All About My Mother, Volver, to unclassifiable black comedies such as What Have I Done to Deserve This?!, Women On the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, and Dark Habits. Peppered in between, he's branched out into films ranging from genre exercises such as The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh to wildly and absolutely original efforts as Talk to Her and Bad Education. In short, Pedro Almodóvar has a rich backstory as a filmmaker leading up to our film at hand ... he's been compared to filmmakers as diverse as John Waters and Luis Buñuel over the years. Always good company as far as I'm concerned! With such illustrious credentials and multiple Oscar nominations (with a win for the screenplay for Talk To Her), he's definitely a force to be reckoned with in contemporary European cinema. If you don't know Almodóvar already, you owe it to yourself to get to know his films.
Volver is an intensely maternal film. It's all about maternal issues: caring for family and friends, the inevitable rifts between generations, and unforgivable family secrets. Taking its starting point from the suggestive and ambiguous title, Almodóvar chooses to center his film on cycles repeated over time ... resemblances repeated across generations, albeit with variations that inevitably collapse upon themselves .... all to return to the point where they started, a small village in wind-swept La Mancha, where the residents are rumored driven insane by the howling of the wind.
Almodóvar is a master of nested narratives, and in many of his films, one is sorely tempted to liken their structure to onion narratives ... in which the more you peel away the layers, the more complexities reveal themselves in the process. Bad Education was a prime example of this signature Almodóvar technique with its snaking cross-temporal narratives that finally meet up at its shocking conclusion. Volver manages to push the envelope even further this time ... to stunning effect, because once you surrender to the initial pull of the narrative prompted by two deaths in short succession, you're hooked on the ride and there's no turning back.
As the film opens with its brilliant, yet maddeningly long leftward pan across a cemetery filled with women busily cleaning family gravesites, we meet Raimunda, her teenage daughter Paula, and her sister Soledad. They have returned to the family ancestral village to tend to the graves of their parents, who both died mysteriously in a fire several years previously. Having fulfilled these familial duties, they end their day with an obligatory visit to their aging Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) who somehow still manages to live independently even though she's almost blind and has a certifiable case of dementia. By the end of their visit, mysterious 'care packages' of pastries appear addressed to Raimunda and Soledad ... teenage Paula spots an exercise cycle in an upstairs room ... inexplicable details that just seem to them odd, in the house of a woman incapable of caring for herself. (As Raimunda later learns, the rumor around the village is that her mother Irene has returned as a caretaking ghost who looks after the ailing Aunt Paula.)
On its most superficial level, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a clearly strong woman trapped in an unhappy marriage with a brutish husband (shades of What Have I Done to Deserve This?!), overworked and under appreciated, with a teenage daughter just beyond the cusp of puberty and in clearly dangerous territory. Much of the film revolves around her efforts to keep it all together for her immediate family, extended family and friends. Raimunda exercises her maternal instincts bravely throughout ... all the while Cruz pulls it all off with a performance clearly modeled after the young Sophia Loren. She positively inhabits Loren, and Cruz has never before looked so authentic and stunning. She nearly overwhelms every frame she's in, radiating an earthy, strong sexuality all the while she projects an incredible inner strength given circumstances involving the disposal of a troublesome body, innumerable family dramas, a flatulent ghost and the daily struggle to survive in a poor Madrid neighborhood.
Almodóvar has previously proven himself (notably in All About My Mother) a master at devising films practically devoid of male characters, brilliantly depicting the lives of struggling women in contemporary Spain. Though he is apparently mining familiar territory here, Volver never seems derivative, thanks to his skillful manipulation of the narrative "layers" that inevitably strip themselves away, cyclically, inexorably, revealing the film's heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful central narrative. Volver is pure 'feminine' melodrama, yes, but on what a lusciously grand scale!
I'll refrain from revealing any more details, because the true pleasure of this film comes from its gradual unveiling of narrative layers, and to divulge much more would do a disservice to potential viewers. I've devoted a lot of this review to the narrative technique Almodóvar employs, which is a crucial point to understanding the film, but I would be remiss not to recognize many of his frequent collaborators who help realize his unique vision. Many of these people have worked with Almodóvar for years ... tightly focused editing by José Salcedo... luscious, colour saturated filming by José Luis Alcaine ... and a soulful, haunting musical score by Alberto Iglesias. To Almodóvar afficionados, seeing these names in the credits is tantamount to a veritable 'seal of quality' for the film ... they know how Almodóvar works, they clearly understand his vision and do everything within their considerable powers to bring it to the screen.
Volver was shut out of competition this past year for Best Foreign Feature by Pan's Labyrinth (which was cruelly cheated of its much deserving win!), and it would appear that the Academy felt obligated to recognize it if only by nominating Cruz for best actress (and how could she compete with Helen Mirren?) even though she ultimately went home empty handed. I doubt that Almodóvar was terribly slighted by the omission, given the brilliance of Del Toro's fantastic vision, yet it's a sad commentary about our country's highest film honors limiting themselves to a single entry from each country, when Spain has such a vibrant and original film culture at the present time ... a culture which puts to shame the crass vulgarity of most contemporary Hollywood product.
Almodóvar has nevertheless established a large audience over the past twenty seven years, even in the US, despite the hurdles cast his way by the cruel realities of the American film market. That's testimony enough to his genius as a filmmaker, and I for one am glad he's finally achieved the sort of recognition he has among those who appreciate a story well told from a different point of view. His films are a revelation of another world co-existing with ours yet so differently ... providing us with perspectives viewed through another sensibility in ways richly different from those we typically expect from a film. Ever since I saw my first Almodóvar film, What Have I Done to Deserve This?! in 1985, I knew he was one to watch and he's rarely disappointed me since ....
One final note on Volver: this film marked the first time in seventeen years Almodóvar had worked with his frequent muse and star Carmen Maura (who plays the enigmatic Irene in our present film). Though this magnificent actress figures in almost all of his earlier films, perhaps most brilliantly in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Oscar nominee for best foreign feature in 1988), after that film there was some sort of falling out (which neither will discuss) that led to this long absence from Pedro's work. When I first learned that Volver was on the way, and it starred not only Cruz but Carmen, I just knew it would be yet another Almodóvar masterpiece. I was not disappointed by the result! And I impatiently await his next film ....
If you've never seen any of Almodóvar's films, a good starting point (if not this film) would be Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, his manically eccentric Madrileñan comedy involving yet another group of women pushed to the limit. It's not as widely available these days (for some odd reason) as his other films, but thanks to Sony Classics, who came out with a wonderful boxed set called Viva Pedro earlier this year, you can view eight of his very best films (including the long out of print Matador and Law Of Desire) in a sumptuous collection that is well worth the investment. I snapped this one up gleefully when it was first announced and have been delighted to have them finally together in one place. If your local video store doesn't stock any Almodóvar films (though it probably will, even at Blockbuster), you should lobby them hard to at least include this set in their inventory. Alternatively, you could just go ahead and buy it on my recommendation ... and would I steer you wrong? I sure hope not.
Oh, and as a final by the way, my dear doggie Pepa got her name from the Carmen Maura character in Women on the Verge ... little did I know at the time how well she'd live up to her namesake ... a feisty, independently minded and willful bitch. I wouldn't have it any other way!