Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In Spanish with English subtitles.
The most striking thing about Volver is the nearly complete absence of men. They are present, but only to give the women someone to despise, someone to be admired by, or someone to provide them opportunity. There isn’t any romance, and the only friendship is with a woman so close to the central family she may as well be family. No, this is a movie about family.
At its center is Raimunda, a 30-ish mom to teenaged Paula. They have a typical mom-teen relationship, arguing over too much time on the cell phone and you-never-tell-me-things-anymore. Raimunda’s husband is a loser from the moment we see him sprawled on the couch finishing his umpteenth beer. He’s not worried about having to get up for work in the morning because he has just been fired and that’s fine with him.
Raimunda is closest to her sister Sole, who is older by several years and seems to have taken on most of the filial responsibility for their only remaining elder, an aunt named Paula. Aunt Paula is stricken with occasional dementia, and Sole is clearly stressed out with worry. If not for the daily visits and attention by Aunt Paula’s neighbor Agustina, either Raimunda or Sole would have to take their aunt in, a move which they are on the verge of making anyway.
There are unspoken tensions between all the women in this family, and writer-director Pedro Almodóvar gives us plenty of time to try and figure them out. Disagreements pop up about seemingly inconsequential issues, but little hints are dropped in the dialogue. Did someone go away for a time? Was there a division in the family? It might feel like something of a puzzle except we don’t have enough to piece anything together. Instead, we are carried along while these women sort through their tensions.
It might also feel like a tease, but the director is establishing believable relationships so that when we and the characters are confronted with the naked truth, their responses are real.
I have a couple of major issues with the direction here. Anyone who’s discussed movies with me for thirty minutes knows that I’m fine with film as a medium for the appreciation of women’s beauty. The world is a beautiful place, and film is a visual domain, and why not use it to celebrate all the many ways women are beautiful? Yet Almodóvar appreciates his actresses in a way that’s intrusive on our experience with the world he creates. For example, in one scene where Raimunda is washing dishes, we are confronted suddenly with an unexplained overhead shot that points right into Penélope Cruz’s cleavage. It’s not a POV shot, since nobody’s watching her from the ceiling, and it does nothing for the scene except to say, look at this gorgeous cleavage.
Cruz is a stunning woman with enormous eyes, a lippy smile, and yes, physical endowments that two of the female characters in the movie even comment on. But we have multiple opportunities to see them in context, the way the characters see them, and this isn’t one of those movies whose viewers are paying specifically to see breasts. Those movies are fine, and I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share, but everything in its time and place, you know?
I’ll add that Almodóvar takes it a little too far in showing us young Paula as well, although clearly not in a gratuitous way. These are POV shots, and they are important to the story, although they don’t just make a point: they make a point and then highlight, star, and underline it, and it’s just too much. Thankfully, while the character is in her teens, the actress was in her 20s when this was filmed, so it doesn’t creep over into borderline illegal territory.
My second major problem is a scene where Raimunda sings a song, and Cruz is lip-syncing to a track that’s so obviously not Raimunda’s voice that the scene is almost unwatchable. A horrible decision.
Still, a good movie with some fine acting and a look and feel you don’t get every day in American film. Madrid seems to be colored with a completely different box of crayons from the one we have in our American stores. The sunlight, wind, and sky all seem like they’re a different world, and it’s rather a lovely world to be part of for two hours. Oh, and not a movie for kids. There are themes of sexual assault, so approach with caution if you’re sensitive.