Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 08 October 2006
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm Print
Features: The 44th New York Film Festival
KATERINA: One day, you and I should talk.
MARCO: Yes, and it will be simpler than you think.
KATERINA: Nothing is simple. I’m a ballet mistress, and nothing is simple.
This dialogue comes not from Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Volver, but from the last scene of his 2002 film, Talk to Her, and yet it sums up a great deal about the director’s new work and about his body of work as a whole. In establishing an opposition between the simple and the complex at the end of his earlier masterwork, Almodóvar sides with neither the teary Argentine, Marco Zuluaga, nor Geraldine Chaplin’s resigned, yet bubbly ballet mistress. In each of the Spanish director’s films, life shares in both simplicity and complexity in equal measures. No trauma is too awful not to shrug off or laugh at, and yet no image or emotional response, however fleeting, passes as insignificant. This is the key aspect of Almodóvar’s melodrama, in which each detail is accorded its own degree of baroque excess, and each bend in his maze-like plotting is lent the nonchalant air of everyday life.
Lately, however, this characteristically topsy-turvy worldview has been subject to an inevitable (and rather interesting) backlash. Peter Matthews, writing in September’s Sight & Sound, skewers the Spaniard for his triviality, his ongoing, empty self-parody, and the descent in his career from iconoclastic madcap comedy to bourgeois pablum. This last point, in spite (or, more likely, because) of the enormous international middlebrow fêting of All About My Mother and Talk to Her, is the most interesting sortie in the offensive, claiming that Almodóvar’s more polished, mature (read: studied) style, mesmerizing though it might be to undiscerning cinephiles, is anodyne in comparison to the bracing, scandalous tenor of his early days. Short of “going Hollywood,” the advances of which Almodóvar has only lately rebuffed, this purportedly marks the director’s deterioration into the style of “Arthouse for Dummies,” situating his recent work in a niche usually reserved for Il Postino and Eat Drink Man Woman.
But — with apologies to Mr. Matthews and Ms. Chaplin — I’m a ballet mistress, and nothing is that simple. Almodóvar may be playing well to older urbanites and poolside auteurists these days, indeed his career may even warrant a nationwide retrospective from his American distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, but a brief glance at his recent output reveals it to be anything but tame exercises in pretty décor, spicy cooking, and jaunty flamenco. If anything, the director’s retro-rainbow mise-en-scène and spiraling successions of circumstance serve to make palatable increasingly outré subject matter in the form and manner of the great cinematic melodramatists. As Reverse Shot’s Michael Koresky enumerated in his review of Talk to Her last month, Almodóvar’s supposedly middle-of-the-road recent themes include “transsexuality, pedophilia, necrophilia, and gobs of gay sex.” Just how jolly these matters seem in the director’s films is proof enough that Pedro hasn’t lost his edge, though perhaps his weapon of choice is now more often a roofie than a cudgel.
Volver is nothing if not jolly. Piling incident upon incident, the film trips along much like a slapstick soap opera, interleaving all the rape, murder, heartache, and family feuding with great dollops of sumptuous cooking, gossip and mythmaking, great maternal smooches, and even a little flirting when the moment allows. Displaying an unprecedented physical and emotional presence, Penélope Cruz amply inhabits the character of the redoubtable Raimunda, a working mother who seems to carry the troubles of everyone — her teenage daughter Paula, her layabout husband, her flighty sister, her batty old aunt, her gaggle of neighbors — squarely on her own shoulders. Ever clad in bosomy floral housedresses with hair sculpted high to the ceiling, Cruz storms through the film like a multicolor Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani, evincing that mix of suppressed hysteria and endless resourcefulness that marks all of Almodóvar’s heroines.
And, as in all of Almodóvar’s films, this heroine has much work to do. At the start of the film, Raimunda has returned to the cozy Manchegan village of her youth where we find her busily scrubbing the tombstone of her mother, Irene, who was consumed in a mysterious fire along with Raimunda’s father in the family home a year before. Long since expatriated to Madrid, Raimunda makes this pilgrimage to her family’s old environs with her sister and daughter in tow, to pay her respects and visit some old family and friends. These include her doddering Aunt Paula, who speaks of Raimunda’s dead mother as if she still walked among them, and Agustina, a solemn, pot-smoking old maid whose own mother mysteriously disappeared the night of Raimunda’s parents died. For much of the early part of the film, these two lonesome women provide the chorus of memory and death that runs through the film, a grave, yet dignified counterweight to the vibrant endurance of Raimunda.
Once returned to Madrid, Raimunda’s work and troubles do not abate. Her husband Paco’s drunken shiftlessness, lack of employment, and pedophilic leering result (truth be told, somewhat unconvincingly) with his violent death, an enormously inconvenient and ill-timed event that forces our spirited heroine to summon all of her mother’s pragmatism, strength, and resourcefulness. From this moment on, the film becomes quite literally and exclusively a women’s picture, banishing the burdensome masculine presence from the lives of female characters who seem a good deal better off without it. In this way, the film is in many ways the mirror image of Almodóvar’s previous effort, Bad Education, a film that seemed to turn off many with its unusually cold appraisal of the machinations, amorality, and even femmey-fatalism of men. In lieu of the brutal, self-interested male dissemblers of the prior film, Almodóvar gives us women who must lie, cheat, murder, steal, assume identities, and prostitute themselves, not out of cravenness or greed, but merely out of the necessity of living. The key difference here is that Almodóvar’s female characters remain innocent, determined to endure, even thrive, in a world that seems more inclined to beat them down at every opportunity.
For all of this championing of women, Volver admittedly remains a rather slight work, neither as flashy nor as wildly unpredictable as his past few films, preferring instead a quieter elegance and more intimate tone than Almodóvar’s more elastic marvels of screenwriting architecture. But for a film about resolving family mysteries and coming to grips with one’s ghosts, the director’s tender mode seems far more appropriate than his more familiar and unrelentingly ecstatic one. Volver is, as its blissfully untranslated title suggests, a film about returning — returning home and to one’s past, reliving it and retelling it — and about the way in which events keep repeating themselves, echoing in new variations as they are visited on new generations. Each time we see Raimunda driving home across the plains of La Mancha, with new ecological windfarms replacing Don Quixote’s windmill dragons in the background, we are reminded of this pattern of repetition and variation, of just how much and how little changes.
The problems of Raimunda, her mother, and her daughter are all distinct, yet interconnected, and it is this shared burden of history that, for all its surface noise and bustle, Volver quietly, calmly draws out. Almodovar’s films are about accepting and overcoming life’s little complications, locking them up in a box and burying them if necessary, but in any case finding practical ways of dealing with them. And it’s simpler than you’d think.