A movie review of Volver
Pedro Almodovar brings to the screen a heartwarming chick-flick about murder and incest.
The movie starts at a cemetery where dozens of a town’s widows laboriously clean the tombstones of their dead husbands’ graves; “Men don’t live as long as women in this town,” we are told. The only exception are Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her sister Sole (short for Soledad, which means loneliness, which indeed the character is, played by Lola Duenas) and Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), who are cleaning the grave of their mother and father who died three years earlier in a fire.
Their town in La Mancha (home of both Don Quijote and Almodovar) is named Alcanfor de las Infantas (the camphor of the princesses) and indeed the town is steeped in the mothballs of yesteryear – the widows wear black, the houses are classic courtyard houses, the dolls are made of porcelain, the traditions are part of everyday life, and the city is far away, separated by a modern windmill farm.
Theirs is a world without men.
It is a world of hard work and clean, modestly pleasant and very colorful surroundings, but, as I said, a world without men. The only men in Alcanfor de las Infantas show up at a funeral, and at that point one wonders if they are ghosts.
There is a great deal of symbolism in the film but I won’t focus on that. This is a movie about relationships. Bear with me for a moment.
Penelope Cruz does a terrific job in this film. All that remains from her Hollywood bimbo years is the breast surgery, and even that becomes a minor joke when her mother, played by the always great Carmen Maura, asks her
“Weren’t your t**s smaller? I don’t remember their ever being so big”.
Penelope’s acting reminded me of Sophia Loren in Sunflower. Like Sophia, Penelope credibly portrays a woman in her thirties coping with exhausting work and a hard life. Sophia’s part in Sunflower was a woman who was truly in love and whose commitment to her man was complete.
No such thing can exist in Volver. The men at the margins of these women’s lives might be helpful or considerate but the men with whom these women are involved are the worst of the worst – Raimunda’s ugly husband was a lazy drunk, and a pig. The message of the movie is that the only way these women can live in peace is by killing them.
I read the NYT review after watching the fim, and A. O. Scott said,
Men, for Raimunda and her circle, tend to be malevolent, irrelevant or simply absent: straying husbands, predators, dead bodies. They cause a fair amount of trouble, but the point of “Volver” is that it’s not about them.
It is about what American feminists of an earlier era called sisterhood, and also about the complicated bonds of kinship and friendship that Mr. Almodóvar observed as a child growing up among women in traditional, patriarchal, gender-separated (and fascist) Spain.
The American feminists have, in all their sisterhood, routinely defined relations between men and women as inherently adversarial. Complicated bonds of kinship and friendship can and should exist between the sexes, but in this movie what Almodovar tells us is that women can’t live in peace if there are men around. That’s why those widows were completing their wifely duties by keeping those tombs immaculate.
In previous films Almodovar’s women were completely subjugated to men (to the point where they were near-dead, like the women in the perverse Talk to Her). In Volver, the women just kill them off. Obviously this is not any improvement.
Volver is a chick-flick for the Oprahfied. There’s even a talk show scene to boot. This movie has its good moments, particularly because of the actresses, but its message is clear.
Almodovar writes in the film’s official website,
Volver destroys all the cliches about “black” Spain and offers a Spain that is as real as it is the opposite. A Spain that is white, spontaneous, funny, intrepid, supportive and fair.
Supportive and fair, as long as you kill off those bad men. Once the men are out of the way, the women can become whole and mend each others’ hearts.
While the NYTimes reviewer says,
Very few filmmakers have managed to smile so convincingly in the face of misery and fatality,
Mr. Almodovar is to be pitied for never having had a father to show him how to be a good man.
Rated R because of adult situations and language. In Spanish with English subtitles. The subtitles were clear and accurately conveyed the meaning of the dialogue.
(Tango purists might not be too happy that Carlos Gardel’s classic tango Volver has been changed into a flamenco song, but it’s a really lovely rendition which is one of the highlights of the story.)
I definitely appreciate your review. In the 90s when his star was rising as an “independent filmmaker” I made a point of staying current with his movies. But then the interest petered out. You’re putting a finger on why that happened. It has something to do with the limitations of “independent” filmmaking, which sometimes claims more credit for innovation and integrity than it deserves.
Paul Martin says
Never has a film had so many flaws that I’ve enjoyed analysing. While the technical excellence in Volver is undeniable, there were other aspects that disturbed me. I’ve since seen it a second time and re-viewed (on DVD) some of his earlier films such as Bad Education and All About My Mother. I even found there was much in common with Almovar’s first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom.
I’m not going into full detail, but you’re welcome to check out my review where I go into greater detail.
Basically, the problems I have with Volver are attributable to Almodovar’s vision. There’s no doubt he is an auteur, with some kind of depth to his work. I think film is an art form whereby the director as story-teller, infuses the medium with his or her sense of humanity. I find every Almodovar film to be heterophobic. Almodovar idolises women of any variety (good, bad, perverted, etc) and demonises adult heterosexual men except for artists, actors and musicians. There is such a consistency to this theme in his work that I find it distasteful.
A second issue I have with his film s is verisimilitude. I don’t have a problem with camp melodrama and I do love his arty stylisation. I also don’t have a problem with comedy or mixing genres. The problem is that people don’t respond as you’d expect them to. If someone is told that someone has been killed, you expect the other person to be at least a little shocked. Not in Volver. It’s a totally blase affair.
I could go on, but that will do for now.