Arson, incest, adultery and murder happen or committed by the characters within the narrative flow of Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” (2006). There’s a slight thriller/suspense element, melodramatic notes, few farcical manuevers and few campy twists. But, the Spanish auteur’s film isn’t a banal tale about the forces of darkness. Deep down at its heart, “Volver” is a touching and emotionally rich tribute to feminine life force and working class women. It’s the easily accessible and crowd-pleasing work of Almodovar, where the film-maker retains his packages of attractions, like saturated colors, rich surfaces, strong female performances and glossy production design.
In “Volver” women keep together their families, while men remain lazy, indomitable or do far worse acts. The film opens with old matriarchs standing amidst rows of headstones, in a rural cemetery, wiping off dust and tending to their men’s grave. Then, we see Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), who is cleaning the graves of her parents died in a mysterious fire in the village. Teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Coba) hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Duenas) have accompanied Raimunda in this yearly ritual. The trio return to their La Mancha village (Almodovar’s birth place and it was made famous centuries before by author Miguel Cervantes) to meet senile Aunt Paula, who despite being half-blind seems to cook and clean for herself.
Word around the village is that Raimunda’s dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura) is haunting the family home and helping out Aunt Paula. Neighbor and old friend Agustina (Blanca Portilla) confirms this village superstition and hopes that Irene comes before her to ask about the whereabouts of her own disappeared, hippie mother. Raimunda spends her day working as a janitor at Madrid airport and lives with an alcoholic, jobless husband Paco, in a bedraggled apartment. In an ugly turn of events that involves her teenage daughter Paula, a murder is committed. Raimunda hides the corpse at the freezer in a little, nearby restaurant, whose owner is about to sell the place. Soon, Aunt Paula passes away and only Sole attends the funeral ceremony. When Sole returns back to city, mother Irene shows up in car’s trunk with a suitcase and a sprightly smile. And, despite an act of violence, the film flows as fertile dramedy, punctuated by tearful reunions and appalling revelations.
“Volver” hasn’t got the narrative tidiness and isn’t totally devoid of camp elements. We can easily see through the corny plot twists. But, it has got a good emotional structure and excellent performances, where the unburdening of melodrama doesn’t come across as a boring cliche. Almodovar signature style of whacked-out weirdness is subdued enough to create more poignancy to the narrative. The ineffable Almodovar elements like the culinary miracles, obsession over right hair-cuts, mother-daughter relationship, permutations of motherly love and capricious, towering, hysterical women are all present along with matter-of-fact surrealism and earthy comedy. In one sequence mother Irene hides in a car, listening to Raimunda singing, a song which mother has taught to her in childhood (the film’s title is derived from the song, which means ‘to comeback’). From the staging that sequence, it is very evident that the director is making viewers to shed some tears, but we are emotionally attuned to the characters that somehow we don’t care about such manipulation.
The absence of conflict in the drama is one of the vital flaws. The script becomes idolatrous at few occasions (frames concentrating on the proud, radiant faces of the characters) that partially affect to showcase the feminine complexity. The half-hearted satire on reality TV show is all flabby elements of the script. Nevertheless, as a director, Almodovar allows the simple material to unfold in a way, where his ideas and feelings gradually sneak upon the viewers. The central theme includes loss of love and making peace with the past, and although these aren’t approached with artful nuance, the touching performances allow the themes to linger in our memory. The film’s four actresses with their puckish as well as moody reflections add a profound depth to the proceedings. Even when matters are deadly serious and dark, they finely bring out a nuanced, comedic spirit. Penelope Cruz, unlike most of her English speaking roles, embraces the chance to explore different emotional ranges and is so convincing as the modest, working mother of a Madrid neighborhood.
“Volver” (121 minutes) is a pleasing, heart-rending celebration of motherly love and feminine force. It maintains an apprehensible mirthful spirit, despite skirting around tragedies.