Once, a long time ago, I watch a Pedro Almodovar firm on television, Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown I think it was. I remember Barry Norman enthusing over that on his BBC Film show, the one I’ve stolen the title from. Since thern, I’ve seen nothing by him.
With the exception of one Chinese film, the wonderful Curse of the Golden Flower, and one Mexican film, the superb Y Tu Mama, Tambien, the only foreign films I have in my collection are French. But something about the cover of this DVD, Penelope Cruz’s face, Almodovar’s reputation and the high regard in which Volver is held, came together to inspire me to take a punt on a cheap copy, and it’s been a good guess once more.
Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, I’m not really sure what I’ve seen this morning. Volver (To Go Back, or Coming Back) is no one thing, nor is its story clearly-defined at any one moment. Usually, films that don’t settle on one strong theme tend to meander (which is not always a bad thing), and have trouble ending. This film however avoids settling upon any single element to emphasise, and gives weight to each one, taking themes such as sexual abuse, insanity, murder, ghosts and adultery and stuffing them into a wellspring of life. It’s a film with six stars, all of them women, of three different generations, coming out with a buoyancy that contradicts the seemingly negative atmosphere you would otherwise expect.
The film begins with a classically Spanish scene: woman, mostly widows, are sweeping, polishing, cleaning, tending to headstones in a graveyard in the village of Alcanfor de les Infantas, a village in the La Mancha region of Spain. Here are Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her fourteen year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Sole (Soledad, Lola Duenas), tending the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura), killed along with their father in a fire three years ago. They go on to the women’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), elderly, near-blind, senile, who is being looked after by her neighbour opposite, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who believes Aunt Paula is visited by the ghost of her sister, Irene.
That’s a complicated set-up to begin with, but it’s soon to get more involved. Raimunda is married to Paco, a mainly good-for-nothing slob, perennially unemployed, semi-drunk. Home from Alcanfor, concerned about her Aunt (to whom she has always been closer than to her late mother), Raimunda refuses Paco’s advances in bed. Horny, he glances up Paula’s skirt, spies on her in the bathroom, topless, and then tries to rape her in the kitchen, claiming he’s not her father so it’s ok. Raimunda comes home from work to find Paco dead, stabbed.
Raimunda takes responsibility. She cleans the kitchen, hides the body in a freezer in the nearby restaurant when she’s left the keys by its absentee owner, indeed opens the restaurant ad hoc to feed a film crew, improvising madly with the aid of her neighbours (both female, one a prostitute). Whilst this is developing wildly, Aunt Paula dies. Sole has to go to the Funeral alone – despite being terrified of the dead – although everything is organised beautifully by Augustina.
In Aunt Paula’s house, Sole sees her mother. When she returns to Madrid, her mother is in the trunk of her car. Influenced by village superstitions, Sole believes her mother has returned, to fill one last, undone thing from life, and is ready to do this for her. However, Irene can only do herself what she needs to know, which is to speak to Raimunda and put right the reason her daughter hates her
Irene moves in to Sole’s apartment. She assists her in her illegal hairdressing business, pretending to be a Russian who speaks no Spanish.
Augustina contracts cancer, a virulent form, terminal. She has one wish left, to know whether her mother is alive or dead. Her mother disappeared years ago, the same day Raimunda and Sole’s parents were killed. Augustina believes in Irene’s ghost and, if she should appear to Raimunda, she wants her to ask that question. Raimunda, who is full of an unexpressed anger that Cruz incarnates in her every look, dismisses this as ridiculous only to learn, long after her daughter, that her mother is still there.
Irene’s not a ghost. Raimunda’s earthiness won’t allow a ghost to exist. In fact, the truth was that Augustina’s mother had been having an affair with Raimunda’s father, and it was Augustina’s mother who died in the fire, set by Irene.
And there is more. Paco wasn’t lying when he claimed Paula wasn’t his daughter. Raimunda was abused by her father: Paula is not merely her daughter but also her sister.
Slowly, everything comes out. The picture is painted. Raimunda and Sole bring Irene back to Alfancor. Augustina is on medication to keep her free from pain as she dies. Irene moves into her house, as a ghost, to care for her until the end.
All of this seems morbid, and yet the film’s gift, in Almodovar’s writing and directing, and in everybody’s acting, with no distinction to be drawn between any of the players (though Cruz is as good as anyone ever has been, not to mention looking fabulous throughout in a very non-film star fashion: I also loved Duenas, who I’d never seen before, and she possesses a very attractive bottom) is to fill you with great enjoyment.
The film’s lack of a clear definition makes it difficult for me to respond to it with any clarity of my own. It’s a wide window into a culture with which I have only the most minimal insight but to which I have always responded positively and with great enjoyment and comfort. Two hours in such a place is worth the experience itself, and I will be watching this several times more.