Volver: Almodovar's Confession

Cannes Film Fest 2006–“Volver” is a meeting of Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace, combined with the surrealistic naturalism of my film, What have I done to Deserve This The film is about Spain's lively working-class neighborhoods, where the immigrants from the various Spanish provinces share dreams, lives, and fortune with a multitude of ethnic groups and other races.

At the heart of this social framework, three generations of women survive wind, fire and even death, thanks to goodness, audacity and a limitless vitality. They are Raimunda (Pnelope Cruz), who is married to an unemployed laborer and has a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo); Sole (Lola Dueas), her sister, who makes a living as a hairdresser; and the mother of both (Carmen Maura), who died in a fire along with her husband. This character appears first to her sister (Chus Lampreave) and then to Sole, although the people with whom she has some unresolved matters are Raimunda and her neighbor in the village, Agustina (Blanca Portillo).

“Volver” is not a surrealistic comedy although it may seem so at times. The living and the dead coexist without any discord, causing situations that are either hilarious or filled with a deep, genuine emotion. Its a film about the culture of death in my native La Mancha. The people there practice it with an admirable naturalness. The way in which the dead continue to be present in their lives, the richness and humanity of their rites mean that the dead never die.

“Volver” destroys all the clichs about black Spain and offers a Spain that is as real as it is the opposite. A Spain that is white, spontaneous, funny, intrepid, supportive and fair.

Shooting Volver

The most difficult thing about Volver has been writing its synopsis. My films are becoming more and more difficult to tell and summarize in a few lines. Fortunately, this difficulty has not been reflected in the work of the actors, or of the crew.

The shooting of Volver went like clockwork. I guess I enjoyed it more because the last shoot (Bad Education) was absolute hell. I had forgotten what it was like to shoot without having the feeling of being permanently on the edge of the abyss. This doesnt mean that Volver is better than my previous film, (in fact, Im very proud of having made Bad Education), just that this time I suffered less. In fact, I didnt suffer at all.

In any case, Bad Education confirmed something essential for me, which I had discovered already, in Matador and Live Flesh”: you cant throw in the towel. Even if youre convinced that your work is a disaster, you have to keep fighting for every shot, every repetition, every look, every silence, every tear. You mustnt lose an iota of enthusiasm even if youre in despair. The passing of time gives you another perspective and at times things werent as bad as you thought.

Confession

Volver (Coming back) is a title that includes several kinds of coming back for me. I have come back, a bit more, to comedy. I have come back to the female world, to La Mancha (undoubtedly this is my most strictly Manchegan film, the language, the customs, the patios, the sobriety of the facades, the cobbled paving in the streets). I am working again with Carmen Maura (after seventeen years), with Penlope Cruz, Lola Dueas and Chus Lampreave. I have come back to maternity, as the origin of life and of fiction. And naturally, I have come back to my mother.

Maternal breast

Coming back to La Mancha is always to come back to the maternal breast.
During the writing of the script and the filming, my mother was always present and very near. I dont know if the film is good (Im not the one to say), but Im sure that it did me a lot of good to make it. I have the impression, and I hope its not a passing feeling, that I have managed to slot in a piece whose misalignment has caused me a lot of pain and anxiety throughout my life, I would even say that in recent years it had damaged my existence, dramatizing it too much).

Death

The piece I am talking about is death, not just mine and that of my loved ones but the merciless disappearance of all that is alive. I have never accepted or understood it. And that puts you in a distressing situation when faced with the increasingly faster passing of time.

The most important thing that comes back in Volver is the ghost of a mother, who appears to her daughters. In my village those things happen (I grew up hearing stories of apparitions), yet I dont believe in apparitions. Only when they happen to others, or when they happen in fiction. And this fiction, the one in my film (and here comes my confession) has produced a serenity in me such as I havent felt for a long time (really, serenity is a word whose meaning is a mystery to me). I have never in my life been a serene person (and its never mattered to me in the slightest).

Restlessness and anxiety

My innate restlessness, along with a galloping dissatisfaction, has generally acted as a stimulus. Its been in recent years that my life has gradually deteriorated, consumed by a terrible anxiety. And that wasnt good either for living or for working. In order to direct a film, its more important to have patience than to have talent. And I had lost all patience a long time ago, particularly with trivial things, which are what require most patience. This doesnt mean that I have become less of a perfectionist or more complacent, not at all. But I believe that with Volver I have recovered part of my patience, a word that naturally entails many other things. I have the impression that, through this film, I have gone through a mourning period that I needed, a painless mourning (like that of the character of Agustina the neighbor). I have filled a vacuum, I have said goodbye to something (my youth) to which I had not yet said goodbye and needed to, I dont know. There is nothing paranormal in all this. My mother hasnt appeared to me, although, as I said, I felt her presence closer than ever.

Tribute to social rites

Volver is a tribute to the social rites practiced by the people of my village with regard to death and the dead. The dead never die. I have always admired and envied the naturalness with which my neighbors talk of the dead, cultivate their memory and tend their graves constantly. Like the character of Agustina in the film, many of them look after their own grave for years, while they are alive. I have the optimistic feeling that I have been impregnated with all that and that some of it has stayed with me.

I never accepted death; Ive never understood it (Ive said that already). For the first time, I think I can look at it without fear, although I continue to neither understand nor accept it. Im starting to get the idea that it exists.
Despite being a non-believer, Ive tried to bring the character (of Carmen Maura) from the other world. And Ive made her talk about heaven, hell and purgatory. Im not the first one to discover that the other world is here. The other world is this one. We are hell, heaven or purgatory, they are inside us. Sartre put it better than I.

The River

The happiest memories of my childhood are related to the river. My mother used to take me with her when she went to wash clothes there because I was very little and she had no one with whom to leave me. There were always several women washing clothes and spreading them out on the grass. I would sit near my mother and put my hand in the water, trying to stroke the fish that answered the call of the fortuitously ecological soap the women used back then and which they made themselves.

The river, the rivers, they were always a celebration. It was also in the waters of a river where, a few years later, I discovered sensuality. Undoubtedly the river is what I miss most from my childhood and adolescence. The women would sing while they were washing. Ive always liked female choirs. My mother used to sing a song about some gleaners who would greet the dawn working in the fields and singing like joyful little birds. I sang the fragments that I remembered to the composer on Volver, my faithful Alberto Iglesias, and he told me it was a song from the operetta La rosa del azafrn.

In my ignorance, I would never have thought that that heavenly music was an operetta. That is how the theme has become the music that accompanies the opening credits. In Volver, Raimunda is looking for a place to bury her husband and she decides to do it on the banks of the river where they met as children. The river, like the graphics of any transport, like tunnels or endless passageways, is one of many metaphors for time.

Genre and tone

Volver is a dramatic comedy. It has funny sequences and dramatic sequences. Its tone imitates real life but it isnt a portrayal of local customs. Rather it has a surreal naturalism, if that were possible. Ive always mixed genres and I still do. For me, its something natural. The idea of including a ghost in the plot is a basically comic element, particularly if you treat it in a realistic way. All of Soles attempts to hide the ghost from her sister, or the way she introduces her to her clients, give rise to very comic scenes. Although what happens in Raimundas house (the death of the husband) is terrible, the way in which she fights so that no one should find out and the way she tries to get rid of him also create comic situations.

Although mixing genres is something natural for me, that doesnt mean its free of risk (the grotesque and the grand guignol are always a threat). When you move between genres and cross opposing tones in a matter of seconds, the best thing is to adopt a naturalistic interpretation that manages to make the most ludicrous situation plausible. The only weapon that you have, apart from a realistic setting, are the actors, or rather, the actresses, in this case. I had the good fortune that they are all in a constant state of grace. They are the great spectacle in Volver.

Family

Volver is a film about the family, and made with the family. My own sisters were the advisers on what happened both in La Mancha and inside the houses in Madrid (the hair salon, the meals, cleaning materials, etc.) Although they were more fortunate, my family, like that of Sole and Raimunda, is a migrant family which came from the village to the big city in search of prosperity. Fortunately my sisters have continued to cultivate the culture of our childhood and have kept intact the inheritance received from my mother. I moved away from home very young and became an inveterate urbanite. When I return to the habits and customs of La Mancha, they are my guides. The family in Volver is a family of women. The grandmother who has come back is Carmen Maura, her two daughters are Lola Dueas and Penlope Cruz. Yohana Cobo is the granddaughter and Chus Lampreave is Aunt Paula, who still lives in the village.

This group would have to include Agustina, the neighbor in the village (Blanca Portillo), the one who knows many of the familys secrets, the one who has heard so many things, the one who, as soon as she gets up, taps on Aunt Paulas window and doesnt let up until the old lady answers, the one who brings her a full stick of bread every day, the one who finds her dead and calls Sole in Madrid. The one who opens her home to the corpse in order to give it a proper wake until the nieces arrive. The one who converts her mourning for the neighbor into mourning for her own mother, who disappeared years before, she doesnt know where.

The character of Agustina is, in her own right, part of the family that is headed by Carmen Maura. Agustina represents a very important element in this female universe: the solidarity of neighboring women. The women in the village spread out problems, they share them. And they manage to make life much more bearable. The opposite also happens (the neighbor who hates the neighbor and stores his hatred from generation to generation until one day the tragedy explodes and even they dont know why). I have only paid attention to the positive part of that Deep Spain, which is what I experienced as a child.

In fact, Volver pays tribute to the supportive neighbor, that unmarried or widowed woman who lives alone and makes the life of the old lady next door her own life. For a great part of her final years, my mother was helped by her closest neighbors. Those women were the inspiration for Agustina, a magnificent creation thanks to Blanca Portillo. For me she is the real revelation, because I didnt know her. I had only seen her in a play and I liked her, but I couldnt imagine that, with barely any film experience, she would be such a precise, polished actress, overwhelming in her continence. Agustina, alone in the empty street, watching as Soles car disappears, is the image of rural solitude, stripped of all adornment. Blanca absorbed the essence of all the good neighbors in my village and made it her own.

Penelope Cruz

And her beauty. Penlope is at the height of her beauty. Its a clich but in her case its true. Those eyes, her neck, her shoulders, her breasts!! Penlope has got one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema). Looking at her has been one of the great pleasures of this shoot. Although she has become stylized in the last few years, Penlope showed (from her debut in Jamn, jamn) that she has more force in plebeian characters than in very refined ones.

Seven or eight years ago, in Live Flesh,” Penelope played an uncouth hooker who goes into labor and gives birth on a bus. They were the first eight minutes of the film and Penlope literally devoured the screen. Her Raimunda in Volver belongs to the same stock as Carmen Mauras character in What Have I done to Deserve This” a force of nature that isnt daunted by anything. Penlope can come up with that overwhelming energy, but Raimunda is also a fragile woman, very fragile. She can (and must, because of the script) be furious and a moment later collapse like a defenseless child.

This disarming vulnerability is what surprised me most about Penlope-actress, and the speed with which she can get in touch with it. There isnt a more impressive spectacle than watching in the same shot how a pair of dry, threatening eyes suddenly start to fill with tears, tears that at times spill over like a torrent or, as in some sequences, only fill her eyes without ever spilling over. Witnessing that balance in imbalance has been thrilling. Penlope is a strong-minded actress, but it is the mixture with that sudden, devastating emotion which makes her indispensable in Volver. It was a pleasure to dress, comb and make up the character and the person.

Penlopes body ennobles whatever you put on it. We decided on straight skirts and cardigans because they are classic garments, very feminine and popular in any decade, from the 1950s to 2000. And, it also must be said, because they reminded us of Sophia Loren, in her beginnings as a Neapolitan fish seller. We have to thank the hairdresser Massimo Gattabrusi for the wonderful disheveled hair-dos and Ana Lozano for the make-up. The extended eye line was a real find. There is just one false element in Raimundas body, her ass. These characters are always big-assed women and Penlope is too slim. The rest is all heart, emotion, talent, truth, and a face that the camera adores. As I do.

The Return of Carmen Maura

I never imagined that there was so much expectation about our re-encounter. Im surprised by the number of people who told me how happy they were that Carmen and I were working together again! A song by Chavela says: you always go back to the old places where you loved life. That can also be applied to people.

There is always uncertainty, but fortunately Carmens disappeared at our first work meetings. There is a long sequence in the script of Volver, almost a monologue, because only Carmens character, the grandmothers ghost, speaks. In this sequence, Carmen explains to her beloved daughter, Penlope Cruz, the reasons for her death and her return, over the course of six intense pages and six equally intense shots. This sequence is one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film. I cried each and every time I corrected the text (like the character played by Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, a ridiculous writer of very kitsch, romantic novels who cried while she was writing.

The night we filmed it, the whole crew was aware of its importance. There was a lot of expectation. That made Carmen a bit nervous and she wanted it to tackle it as soon as she could. We took a whole night to film it and everyone from the trainee to me had that extreme concentration you get with difficult scenes and which precisely because of that makes them the easiest scenes, because we all give the most of ourselves.

Once again I felt that sacred complicity with Carmen, that marvelous feeling of being in front of an instrument that was perfectly tuned for my hands. All the takes were good, and many of them were extraordinary. Penlope is listening to her, at times with her head down. In the film, there is a lot of talking, there is a lot that is hidden and, for a comedy (so the crew says) there is a lot of crying.

From Women on the Verge” to the monologue in Volver, Carmen hasnt changed as an actress, and it was wonderful to discover that. She hasnt learned anything because she knew it all already, but keeping that fire intact over two decades is an admirable, difficult task that cant be said of all the actors with whom Ive worked.