“Let me out,” a woman demands as she bangs on the inside her daughter’s car. The humor of the scene from Pedro Almodovar’s new film, Volver, is partly explained by the fact that the mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), was recently killed along with her husband in a car accident. The daughter Sole (Lola Duenas) compounds the humor in the casual way she acknowledges her dead mother’s return (volver means “to return”) and calmly allows her to move in with her. Containing a stabbing, missing persons, and a number of familial conflicts, Volver is fundamentally a comedy, and not just because it contains a number of very funny scenes. Instead, it approaches the classical conception of comedy by resolving apparent dilemmas in a happy way and by reaffirming the vitality of human life and community.
The acclaimed Almodovar, whose All About My Mother won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1999 and Talk to Her won Best Original Screenplay in 2002, is often celebrated for his willingness to take on dark topics, such as male sexual abuse of males in Bad Education, and gender-bending topics, evident in his penchant for transsexual characters.
Volver is neither particularly dark nor obsessive about sexuality, even if it does repeatedly draw our attention to the cleavage of its star, Penelope Cruz, in a splendid performance as Irene’s other daughter, Raimunda. At one point in the film, as Cruz’s Raimunda begins to experience success in a restaurant venture, her bartending co-worker exclaims, “With your cleavage and my mojitos, we can’t lose.”
But happily for viewers, Cruz has much more than her bosom working for her in this film. She exhibits comedic skills, a remarkable emotional range, and even a bit of singing talent in a film that critics are describing as her return to the comfortable environment of her native culture. She has indeed worked with Almodovar before in Spanish-language films, most notably in All about My Mother, but her performance in Volver far exceeds her earlier work.
Many critics have observed that the film, partly set in Almodovar’s childhood town of La Mancha, is a sort of homage to the women who raised him. It certainly features the maternal instincts of women. Beyond their instincts, it celebrates their beauty, grace and humor; their care for others and their embrace of sacrificial acts that go unnoticed in the public world; and their virtuosity, both in the domestic and business arenas. Women’s skills, however comically played out, include disposing of dead male bodies.
When Raimunda’s belligerent, crude, and drunken husband tries to molest her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), the daughter kills him with a rather large knife. After an initial moment of shock and fear, and some time spent mopping up seeping blood, the two surviving females manage to dispose of the body, or almost dispose of it. The corpse ends up in a vacant refrigerator of a neighbor’s restaurant, the very restaurant that Raimunda takes over to begin her own business. The presence of the corpse acts, not as a curse, but as a blessing on the new business venture. Raimunda and her daughter, assisted by many women from the town, experience a kind of liberation, as the restaurant becomes a cooperative, communal endeavor that allows each to contribute her talents.
The film nicely captures an old-world sense of the commerce between the dead and the living. It begins with women in a cemetery cleaning graves-sometimes the graves of those long dead or newly buried, sometimes their own graves-a practice that freaks out the youngest girl in the group. This is a world where reports of the appearance of ghosts, of conversations between the dead and the living, are common and where the consultation of the dead to find out information is an ongoing pursuit. But it is also a world in which feminine virtues provide the connections between one generation and the next, between members of the same family, and even between the living and dead.
Mysteries come and go over the course of the film — as do the living and the dead. Yet, unlike the women in the film, who keep returning to one another, the men, once gone, never reappear. And, once gone, they are not really missed. Perhaps that is because men are destined, as one male character puts it, to hurt the women who love them. Abusive males were the exclusive focus Almodovar’s last feature, Bad Education. Here males deceive and abuse women and are a particular threat to their daughters. Yet, it would be wrong to see Volver as an angry, anti-male diatribe. The film’s tone is almost always light, occasionally even joyful in the midst of the sorrows of life.
In its emotional depth and complexity, Volver is an unusual achievement in contemporary film. That’s what nearly raises the film to the level of classical comedy. If tragedies end with severing and isolation, comedies culminate in restoration, reunion, and reconciliation — a reaffirmation of the vitality of the human community. Yet, Almodover’s comic vision remains truncated. His homage to the women who raised him excludes all men — old or young, husbands or fathers, brothers or sons. (Talk to Her is, if in other ways problematic, a much more fully rounded film at least on the question of the relations of men and women.) Gender-exclusivity is part of the point of Volver of course. But it leaves Almodovar without any prospect of the renewal of the whole human community and it renders his comic vision of humanity sadly incomplete.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.