Lowdown: Untangling the web of lies between three generations of Spanish women. Or: Women are doing it for themselves.
Volver is Spanish director’s Almodovar latest release and the third of his films I get to review in this blog. As with the rest of his films, or at least the ones I’m familiar with, this is yet another story glorifying the feminine and hailing motherhood. This time around, Almodovar takes his passion a step further by producing a film where male characters can hardly be seen let alone play a significant role.
As Volver starts, we are introduced to two sisters, one of them portrayed by Penelope Cruz, and Cruz’ young teenager daughter. They are visiting an elderly aunt of theirs at her residence in a picturesque Spanish village, and find the aunt is completely senile yet seems to be managing herself well with the help of a neighbor and the rumors of a ghost that is looking after her. The sisters go back to their apartments in the city, where Cruz’ husband is only interested in football and sex while Cruz works her guts off in order to provide for the family.
Next thing we know, Cruz’ daughter kills her father as he tries to rape her while drunk; Cruz decides to hide the body. Within a day, the elderly aunt Cruz & Co have just visited passes away. The two events trigger a chain of family reactions, and the handling of those is at the core of the film. As we go, we learn of more and more layers of secrets and lies that come in between the family members. Slowly, the harsh realities unravel themselves and transparency cures past illnesses.
I will not disclose any more of the plot as it would rob a lot of the pleasure that watching Volver is. I will say, though, that I found Volver quite intriguing despite its relative simplicity, mainly due to a simple reason: it is a credible story concerning ordinary people, as opposed to the normal Hollywood tendency to deal exclusively with the larger than life in the assumption that this is the only way to earn money at the box office. The only problem I have with Volver’s story is to do with the decision to hide the killing of the father when everyone who watched one of the 57 different CSI series would know that a child killing her rapist in self protection would be acquitted long before charges are ever pressed.
The acting in Volver is also superb. Penelope Cruz is an actress I never really grew to like but she does a great job in Volver, shedding most but not all of her stardom glamour. While Cruz is the only one of Volver’s actors I am familiar with and probably the film’s only international star, I cannot say that she overshadows any of the others; in fact, claiming that she is the film’s central characters while the rest are in supporting roles would be quite wrong. Altogether, the acting, the characters and the atmosphere contribute to a very enjoyable viewing: I can attest that with the web of secret and lies , the superstitions, and the mentalities involved in Volver, pretty much all Volver’s characters could fit very well as members of my own family.
One last thing: Watching Volver, I kept looking for clues as to the meaning of the name; I couldn’t find any. Afterwards, I looked the word up and found it means “back” (in the sense of a return). It’s a pretty adequate name, given the events taking place in the film, but it’s a pity this information is not provided to the non Spanish speaking viewer earlier on.
Best scene: Almodovar shoots Cruz cooking in her kitchen from above, in a short take that is memorable because of the unconventional yet quite detailed view of Cruz’ cleavage. I guess it’s yet another technique for emphasizing the motherhood motif.
Technical assessment: Quite poor. Although noise is not an issue, the picture lacks detail and colors are too reddish/brown. The soundtrack may be presented in 5.1, but sounded more like mono to my ears.
Overall: I will give Volver 3.5 out of 5 stars but that is rather harsh; the film is worth watching much more than its rating would suggest simply because it is different to the conventional crap we’re used to from Hollywood. We should be thankful we have French and Spanish cinema to save the day when we can’t take mediocrity anymore.