2006, 121 minutes, comedy-drama, directed by Pedro Almodovar, Spain
Unless it’s in the sadomasochistic sense restraint is not typically a word you associate with a Pedro Almodovar film. Yet, it’s what I kept thinking of when I was watching Volver, which is a kind of fairy tale for adults that comes gift wrapped in the film maker’s signature vibrant and arresting visuals. It’s those visuals that reminded me of what a master Almodovar is at going right up to the edge of tacky, but stopping within a nanometer of crossing into its territory. This film is a near-spectacle, and I mean that as a compliment. Sometimes it felt like I was watching a series of paintings instead of a movie and given that the narrative wears thin I was happy to have the not-too-saturated colors and the just-shy-of kitschy composition to get lost in.
Volver is a death and sex-soaked film that begins with a quirky scene of lead character Raimunda, her daughter Paula, and sister Sole cleaning off the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s supposed-dead mother in their hometown in Spain’s La Mancha region. Later the mother returns, revealing herself first to Sole, who in one of the many allusions to Don Quixote, believes her to be an illusion or a specter. Later the mother reveals an ugly secret about Raimunda’s past, but between now and then fourteen-year-old Paula kills Paco, Raimunda’s husband and the man she believes is her father, for making sexual advances toward her and Raimunda covers it up. In a scene where Raimunda is cleaning up the pool of blood that she finds Paco in Almodovar closes in on a white paper towel absorbing a shock of blood. It’s a visual that in lesser hands could have been painfully trite, but he manages to make it seem it fresh and unlike the tired emotional shorthand that it could have been.
Despite sometimes looking like an aerobicized Anna Magnani, Penelope Cruz brings a lushness and sexual electricity to Raimunda that keeps her from becoming the long-suffering martyr that such a story almost demands of her character, and the other actors do a good job of keeping the story from crossing over into soap-opera-grade melodrama. The problem with Volver, though, is that its narrative has a soft, mushy center that leaves us with a fortune-cookie message about the enduring bonds of family and the healing power of truth and love. Maybe this was intentional, but it left me feeling like the movie was a purely surface-level experience—which can make for a more than watchable film, but not a memorable one.