something unusually frank about the way one demands us to pay attention to every detail represented on the screen, passive viewing prohibited. The films of Almodóvar work similarly. All aesthetically in sync, they’re most often pop-art farces (though sometimes melodramas) that paint the filmmaker as something of a modern descendant of Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock.
That directness, stylistic or otherwise, puts Almodóvar in a category all his own. Although he’s infatuated with his own ersatz visual and aural jags, he is a writer-director who still often rips stories from the everyday, heightens their emotional output, and makes us feel as though we’re watching throwback, campy, and feverishly stylized melodramas. Really, we’re watching profoundly personal stories that’d otherwise seem gritty if Almodóvar weren’t utilizing the colors of a Harlem-based mural and thrusting them atop his set and costume design. If his actors weren’t operating a couple notches under the telenovela standard.
Almodóvar’s best movies have usually been his most artistically understated. Talk to Her (2002) sometimes cajoled his optical cravings, but found most of its sensorial thrills through its heartbreaking storyline and performances. Julieta (2016) appeared to be playing it safe by way of its ocular textures, and as an effect were we better able to focus on consuming an aching story that found much of its palpable sorrow in a decades-long misunderstanding.
So consider Volver (2006), which is just as aesthetically febrile and it is substantively so, to be among his handful of unalloyed masterworks. It is a meeting in the middle of all its director’s recurring extremes; it is a harmonious marriage of style and substance, nourishing almost all of Almodóvar’s cinematic fancies to their full effect. A robust color palette is on display, and so is a De Palma-esque fetish for plot twists, artful sexuality, and stylized murder.
His appreciation for vintage Hollywood can be found here, too: the all-female ensemble, both mathematically and performatively, recalls that of George Cukor’s The Women (1939), and the predilection for the theatrics of the late-career vehicles of Joan Crawford and Lana Turner align it with the women’s pictures popularized by directors like Michael Curtiz and William Wyler in the 1940s and ‘50s.
But like other master synthesizers such as the aforementioned De Palma and the increasingly taken-for-granted Quentin Tarantino, Almodóvar doesn’t come across as a curiously intelligent filmmaker who strictly works with the same sensibilities of those who influenced him. Almodóvar rather pieces together the components of the kinds of movies that made an impression on him the most, remixes them to better fit the Pedro Almodóvar brand, and as a result creates a type of moviemaking that’s very much all his own.
Though he’d previously mastered an effortless coalescence of disparate styles with 1999’s All About My Mother and 2004’s Bad Education, Almodóvar had not yet attempted to make a movie cut from the same cloth as the juggling act that is Volver, which blends elements of screwball comedy, soap opera, tragedy, magic realism, and murder mystery. But what culminates is a singular smash, a spectacular merging of provocative styles and a felicitously overwrought story. From the moment its title – which, when translated, means “to go back” – appears on the screen, we’re hooked.
The film stars Penélope Cruz (giving an excellent, Oscar-nominated performance) as Raimunda, a working stiff barely making a living in her native La Mancha. With a daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), and a husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), to support, she works multiple jobs, slaving away tirelessly and selflessly. These days, the only things that keep her motivated are her child, her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), who lives next door, and her elderly aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who’s near death and dementia-ridden.
But two things come to dramatically alter the course of Raimunda's predictable life. One is the murder of Paco at the hands of the younger Paula. (The man, who’s revealed to not actually be related to the former, tried rape and got stabbed.) The other is the natural passing of the elder Paula, which apparently has helped bring Raimunda and Sole’s seemingly long-deceased mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), back from the dead.
In the meantime, Raimunda inherits a restaurant. Irene’s “ghost” starts living with Sole as she runs an illegal salon in her stuffy apartment. Aunt Paula’s neighbor, the cynical Agustina (Blanca Portillo), inserts herself into the family’s life and eventually comes to realize that she has cancer.
Subplots, genres, characters – you name ‘em – all move in and out of the picture dependably but agilely in Volver. Yet whether it’s a big-hearted romp or an Arthur Miller-level tragedy doesn’t much matter. What Almodóvar has done here, rather ingeniously, is turn the life-is-funny tonal quality on its back, gussied it up with chromatic, overinflated style, and transformed it into a comedy that is at once overblown and thoroughly personal.
The movie was both based upon Almodóvar’s upbringing and a story actress Marisa Paredes told him on the set of 1995’s The Flower of My Secret. The knowledge of his personal investment in the film in store – as well as his decades-long, much-discussed love for women – can be felt. There is not a moment in the movie in which we aren’t certain that Almodóvar has some sort of emotional tie to all that’s happening on the screen. He cares about these women; maybe he even sees himself in some of them. It also helps that the movie, for all intents and purposes, is also very funny.
How everything comes together perfectly via unbelievable coincidences and dramatic reveals is a testamonial to Almodóvar’s almost off-the-cuff ability to generate genuinely great entertainment. Just look at how the opportunity for Sole and Raimunda to repair their relationship with Irene comes about right as the former gets the chance of the lifetime to open her own business. Just as the family has to deal with a messy murder that’s somehow cleaned up tidily.
Because these characters are rendered so three-dimensionally, their dealing with so many monumental tragedies (that I won’t reveal here) in some way or another clarifies that, while Volver might have some of the same surface contrivances of ‘50s melodramas, it is, more than anything, a work shaped by convincing heartbreak and apparent honesty.
Yet what I like most in Volver is Penélope Cruz. For years, the actress had been wasting her time in feeble American pictures that didn’t use her properly, and as such could it be easy to forget some of the great work she did in other Spanish films, namely some of Almodóvar’s movies of the late ‘90s.
Like in the case of other international actresses, from Sophia Loren to Catherine Deneuve to Marion Cotillard, the talents of Cruz best shine through when she’s working with material in her native tongue. Volver is no exception, and was the first movie in a series of many released in the late aughts that would show what she was really capable of.
In Volver, she is tasked with carrying almost every scene, and Cruz never backs down from this burden. As Raimunda, Cruz is an admixture of motherliness, sexiness, warmth, and street savviness – she’s full-blooded, the seldom-seen movie character who could likely exist outside of the silver screen. There’s even a randomly placed but nonetheless impactful sequence in when Cruz sings (or, er, lip syncs). And in that moment, when she’s doing something of her own version of the “Put the Blame on Mame” scene in 1946’s Gilda, it’s clear that we’re in the presence of one of cinema’s great, and most unfortunately underutilized, actresses.
It's all seamless, and, fortunately, just one of Almodóvar’s several masterpieces. So many chapters in his filmography are just as devastating, and just as worthy of a second look. But in the hours after my viewing, my mind keeps wandering toward this particular title. Because return I will. How couldn’t I? A
2 Hrs., 1 Min.
Volver January 22, 2018
ake away their musical output and the fantasylands showcased in Technicolor musicals are almost identical to the dreamworlds depicted in the films of Pedro Almodóvar. The colors are scorching, predominantly primary. The emotions are so big that we worry they’ll eventually overwhelm the individuals experiencing them in a Scanners (1981)-style explosion. The dialogue sings showily. The performances are extravagant, never to contain self-consciousness.
In spite of their artifice, the classic musical has always felt sincere. There’s