“Volver” – Andrew Guarini


When certain questions and possibilities pop into my mind, I get a blistering headache. How is the universe the universe? Who am I? Where does stuff go on the computer after you completely delete it? But most of all, what happens to us when we die and go onto whatever is next? Renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Volver (”to return”) gives insight into that last question but touches on a whole lot more in a joyfully touching, complex slice of the human existence. The story revolves around the death of a mother and the process of her daughters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) coping with it. As if the death of a mother isn’t hard enough, their complicated lives become a bit more turbulent when the ghost of their recently deceased mother begins to appear to them and attempt to solve the problems she couldn’t when she was still living. At any time there are many threads of Volver running simultaneously in flawless fashion: the coexistence of the dead and the living, the once seemingly buried past, the mother-daughter relationship and an air of suspense constantly looming among other things. Go in knowing less and find yourself ecstatically surprised frame after frame, for this is one not to be missed.


Crucial is the development of the film’s setting, Almodóvar’s hometown of La Mancha a simple place draped in a sizzling red color palette. Be it through delicacies looking delicious or the compact red cars traveling cobblestone roads, this establishment of a setting where a deceased mother coming back could be believed is pivotal to setting the tone. It’s amazing how ceaselessly Almodóvar avoids melodrama at every turn of the story, of which there are many. There is something about his writing and direction that evokes the very best of the abilities of everyone involved in his projects, and Volver is no exception. The screenplay, one of the film’s strongest attributes, is an incredibly even portrait of a family and the ones around them coping with the suddenness of death, but it doesn’t dwell on only one subject, even if some might find it to wander from time to time.


Though Volver is not the most exciting film of 2006, it deals with more piercing subject matters and changes of mood than many others could strive to. At one moment you may feel inclined to laugh at daughter’s reminiscing humorous memories of their mother or you may feel something entirely different in the many characters and their motivations that come into and out of the story with a pitch-perfect construction. The characters are so real and dimensional, almost any mother with a daughter (or even a son) and any child with a mother they love will find it almost impossible not to be leveled by the sheer emotional power of the story. The direction isn’t flashy, but it is enough to make us feel like voyeurs to these people’s joys and grief, an exhilarating chain of events to watch. Also complimentary is Almodóvar’s respected love of the female figure through the lens, admiring the voluptuous curves of Miss Cruz even if she’s only washing silverware in a sink. Almodóvar is so understanding of the audiences’ inner conscious and feeling; it’s no wonder that Volver is able to show through realistic, restrained writing and direction a story of relatable, convincing trauma.


Even if Almodóvar is showing a pristine mastery behind the camera, the cast in front of it for Volver is equally up to par. The small ensemble has such explosive, meaningful chemistry that it almost feels unfair to judge them separately. However it must be done and first in line for praise is the beautiful (and wildly talented) Penélope Cruz as Raimunda. Transitioning between English and Spanish with a bewildering precision, Cruz is at her career best as the more pessimistic of the daughters. Her character calls for a switching of gears between a stone cold, icy and stern independent woman and someone who is withered down to the vulnerability of a child with the circumstances of Volver. Relishing the character, Cruz gives one of, if not the best performance of the year, male or female.


Thankfully, everyone else is right with her, especially sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and mother Irene (Carmen Maura). Dueñas is the more optimistic sister, readying herself for the acceptance of the spirit of her mother into her life. She isn’t as strong-willed as Cruz’s character, but her gut feeling of wanting to believe in these miracles is what makes the contrast between the two so moving. Maura goes beyond convincing as the mother Irene, painting us a portrait of a loving mother who wants to set things right from beyond the grave. It’s such a chilling performance for her sincerity of wanting to come back and make things right radiates right through the screen. Also stellar in equally significant roles are Blanca Portillo as Augustina, friend of the family and Yohana Cobo as Paula, daughter of Cruz.


Days after, Volver is still found lingering in the back of my mind as my appreciation for such heartfelt and engaging cinema rises quickly. It’s a story of families and death mingled with a somehow playful severity that works magically. Prolific Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar has again crafted another film with a seriously interesting commentary on the relation and dependence of humans for themselves and each other. Leisurely paced but never dull, Volver finds its own ways to keep me constantly enthralled with compassionate sequences of comic drama, high tension and well timed surprise for the things in life we thought we had forgotten. It’s one of the very best pieces of cinema of 2006 and had me thinking in haunting fashion of a quote from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”


Rating: ★★★½


-Andrew Guarini

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