Volver: Almodovar’s Fifth Masterpiece?

volver_1_almodovarThough stylistically different, thematically, “Volver” belongs to the same universe as “All About My Mother,” centering on a group of victimized but resilient women who have (almost) no use for men in their lives. Three generations of women have survived with strength, audacity, and vitality various disasters, some caused by Mother Nature (gusting winds, ferocious fires), others by many deaths, both natural and executed by others.

The film is set in a lively working-class neighborhood, where immigrants from various Spanish provinces share with other groups the harsh realities of daily lives and occasionally their fantasies and dreams.  In “Volver,” Almodovar contests the prevailing clichés about “Black” Spain, offering instead the opposite, a “White” Spain, in which communal life still prevails as a spontaneous, supportive, and life-affirming experience.

“Volver” could be described as a cross between “Mildred Pierce” and “Arsenic and Old Lace,” infused with elements of Almodovar’s own “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”  Among other distinctions, the film’s strong female protagonist takes over a restaurant (just like Mildred) and makes a successful business out of it after her daughter kills her indifferent, parasitical, and abusive husband.

volver_2_almodovarThe heroine, Raimunda (Pénelope Cruz, in an Oscar-nominated turn), is married to an unemployed laborer with whom she has raised a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo).  Over the years, she has remained close to her sister Soledad, nicknamed Sole (Lola Dueñas), who makes her living as a hairdresser, operating an illegal beauty parlor in her home. Their mother (Carmen Maura), who believed to have died in a fire along with her husband, suddenly appears as a ghost. As such, she begins to interact with Sole, then with her granddaughter, and finally with Raimunda.  Strong and stubborn, the mother still has unresolved issues with Raimunda, who had moved to Madrid and had neglected her, and with her village neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo) and the latter’s mother.

As a genre movie, “Volver” is neither surreal nor comedic, though it has elements of both.  It shows how the living and the dead co-exist without any tension or discord, resulting in situations that are both hilarious and emotional.  “Volver” is essentially a film about the culture of death in La Mancha, where people practice death-related rituals with admirable naturalness.  Almodovar contemplates the mysterious but real ways in which the dead continue to influence the living.  The seriousness with which the residents treat the rites honoring the dead suggests that the dead may be buried in the ground but they never really die, in the sense that they never disappear from their survivors’existence—in both real and symbolic ways.

The first scene, set on a sunny and windy day, depicts cheerful women at the cemetery, cleaning the tombstones of their families.  The buried are mostly husbands, and Almodovar makes a point to indicate that “women live longer than men.”  But in Raimunda’s case, the deceased are parents, soon to be joined by her corpse of her husband Paco which, significantly, would not get a proper ceremony or burial.  All of her life, Raimunda has believed that her parents were devoted to each other and died together, tightly embraced to the bitter end, in a lethal fire.  We later learn that Raimunda’s father, just like her husband Paco, was an adulterer who cheated on their neighbor, Agustina’s mother.  Moreover, the fire was no act of accident, as everybody assumed, but the police (always ineffectual in Almodovar’s films) never suspected that it was a deliberate act, a crime committed by Raimunda’s mother. Never subjected to real investigation, Irene disappears quietly and then just as quietly returns to the village as a ghost.

volver_6_almodovarThe first reel concerns the domestic life of the hard-working Raimunda, serving on her lazy brute of a husband. Sitting in front of the TV, he watches soccer and guzzles one beer after another, creepily watching his daughter’s crotch, who is seated with her legs spread in a natural way.  Later on, Paco stares at his daughter through the half-open door while she undresses.  In bed, trying to make love to Raimunda, she rejects him—“Don’t be a pest.”  “Don’t call me a pest,” the macho man charges back and the submissive Raimunda feels obligated to apologize fearing his temper.  Insensitive to Raimunda’s mood–she’s worried about her sickly Aunt Paolina who lives by herself–and lack of energy to make love, he begins to excite himself while lying behind her. Almodovar stops the music and concentrates on the natural sounds of the masturbation, shot from the P.O.V. of Raimunda who’s appalled and horrified.


While Raimunda is absent at work, the drunkard husband makes a pass at his daughter, telling her it’s all right, because “You’re not really my daughter.” The little girl, frightened and shocked, defends herself with a kitchen knife, seen earlier in a close-up when Raimnda was washing the dishes.  Upon learning the truth, Raimunda protects the girl and creates an alibi—“Remember, I killed him,” she says, and the two engage in cleaning up the blood and wrapping the body, in what may be a tribute to the lengthy scene in “Psycho,” in which Norman Bates cleans up the bloody mess and buries Marion’s corpse and her car in the nearby swamps.  For the time being, Raimunda deposits Paco’s corpse in the deep freeze of a restaurant owned by her friendly neighbor Emilio, who had asked her to supervise the business while taking a trip to Barcelona.

volver_5_almodovarThe restaurant serves as the major site in the second reel, when a film crew working in the region needs daily lunches.  Pragmatic and with no signs of panic or hysteria, Raimunda promises to serve lunch to a crew of 30 later that day, at 4pm to be precise.  In just several hours, she rushes to the market place, borrows money and food from neighbors and passers-by, all women (including a hooker), of course, who gladly come to her rescue.  The film director is one of the four males in “Volver, and the most positive character.  Almodovar may be paying tribute to himself and/or to other male artists, who are expected to be more sensitive to the needs of all others, especially women.


“Volver” is the most extreme of Almodovar’s films in depicting complete solidarity among women, who have no use for men, not even as sex objects.  There is not a single woman who’s happily married or attached; the teenage daughter is also deprived of a boyfriend.  There are also no couples to be seen around.  All the femmes live sexless lives, having repressed their libidos, channeling their anxieties and energies into rich family and community life.  Almodovar even refrains from showing the growing affection between Raimunda and the movie director, who frequents her restaurant.  There is exchange of simpatico looks, some open and inviting smiles, but that’s about it. For now, Raimunda lives a sexless life—she is done with relationships, though clearly she enjoys the attention granted to her by the courteous director.   As soon as she notices his gaze, Raimunda takes better care of herself, applying hot lipstick and flaunting a cleavage that gets deeper and deeper in exposing her beautiful breasts.


volver_4_almodovarFor Almodovar, the most difficult thing about “Volver” was writing the script, perhaps because he decided to tell the story chronologically with no insertion of flashbacks, a characteristic device. (We never see the fatal fire or the adulterous affair).  Overall, though, it was a joyous experience, especially after “Bad Education,” which he described as “absolute hell.”  “I had forgotten what it was like to shoot without having the feeling of being on the edge of the abyss. This time I suffered less; in fact, I didn’t suffer at all.”


Displaying one of the shortest and most significant titles of Almodovar’s films, “Volver” is also one of few films to use the original Spanish in all foreign theatrical markets.  Bearing many meanings, “Volver” translates into “coming back,” “to return,” “to come home,” and “to repeat,” all of which apply to—and are valid—to the text.  “Volver” includes several acts of coming back.  It represents Almodovar’s return to comedy, his return to a distinctly female world, his return to La Mancha (“this is my most strictly Manchean film”), to its language, customs, patios and streets.  Moreover, after 17 years of separation, Almodovar worked again with Carmen Maura, his muse and dominant actress in the 1980s.  Other regular actresses, such as Penélope Cruz, Lola Dueñas, and Chus Lampreave, were also cast in “Volver,” lending a sense of continuity, on-screen and off.


“Volver” also signaled coming back to maternity, as the essential source of human life and also the origin of fiction. More specifically, the film pays tribute to Almodovar’s mother, the most influential figure of his life. Almodovar has said that, “Coming back to La Mancha is always like coming back to the maternal breast.”[i] During the writing and shooting, he asked his mother to be physically present on the set—he needed her to be around.  He later said, “My mother hasn’t appeared to me, though I felt her presence closer than ever.”[ii]


Almodovar claims that he has never fully understood the notion of death. This put him in a distressing situation, when faced with the fast passage of time in his own life.  The ghost of the mother, who “appears” to her daughters, is a recurrent phenomenon in his village.  As he recalled: “I grew up hearing stories of apparition, and this fiction has produced serenity in me such as I haven’t felt for a long time.”[iii]  Almodovar’s innate restlessness has acted as a stimulus. With “Volver,” he has recovered “part of my patience” and “a sense of my balance.”  With this film, “I have gone through a painless mourning (like that of Agustina, the neighbor). I have filled a vacuum, I have said goodbye to my youth, to which I had not yet really said goodbye and needed to.”[iv]


“Volver” honors the rites practiced in his village, based on the myths that the dead never really vanish. The director has said that he always envied the naturalness with which his neighbors talked about the dead, cultivating their memories, carefully tending their graves on a regular basis, and so on. Like the film’s Agustina, many neighbors look after, and periodically visit, their pre-assigned graves while they are still alive.  It was the first time, Almodovar said, that “I could look at death without fear.  I’m starting to get the idea that death exists.”[v]  Despite being a non-believer, he brings Carmen Maura’s character from the other world, and makes her talk about heaven, hell, and purgatory.  “I’m not the first one to discover that the other world is here. We all have hell, heaven or purgatory, they are inside us.  Jean-Paul Sartre put it better than me in his essay and plays (“No Exit”).[vi]


In “Volver,” Raimunda, looking for a place to bury her husband, decides to do it on the banks of the river where they had first met as innocent children.  Time never stands still in Almodovar’s movies.  Rivers like transports, tunnels, bridges, and passageways prevail in his work (like the boys’ singing and swimming by the river in “Bad Education”), serving as potent metaphors for the transience of time, just as they did in the films of Douglas Sirk.   In Sirk’s “Written on the Wind,” there is a flashback to the younger characters of Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson, having a picnic by the river, engraving on a tree the heart symbol of their love.  Malone returns to this romantically pure site as a grown-up woman whose nymphomania and obsession with Hudson is partly blamed on his sexual rejection of her.  In “Volver,” assisted by the village’s prostitute Regina, Raimunda digs a hole and buries Paco by the river.  She later returns to the scene with her mother and daughter, telling the latter that this was Paco’s favorite site.  She makes an engraving on an ancient tree, just like Dorothy Malone did, but instead of a heart, she enlists Paco’s dates of birth and death.


A dramatic comedy, “Volver” defies realism in its portrayal of local customs in favor for what Almodovar has described as surreal naturalism: “I’ve always mixed genres. For me, it’s something natural. The idea of including a ghost in the plot is a comic one, particularly if you treat it in a realistic way. Sole’s attempts to hide the ghost of her mother from her sister, or the way in which she introduces her to her clients, as a dumb Russian, are essentially comedic.”[vii]  Although the events in Raimunda’s house (the husband’s death) are terrible, the way in which she fights so that no one could find out, and the way she gets rid of Paco’s corpse (first freezing him in a cooler) create situations that are comic. Moving between divergent genres and opposing tones, often in a matter of seconds, one of Almodovar’s signatures, calls for a more naturalistic interpretation of life, a strategy that makes the most ludicrous situations slightly more plausible and bearable, occasionally even funny.  The other “realistic” element in “Volver,” apart from the recognizable setting, is the troupe of reliable actresses, who are all in top form, “in a state of grace”[viii] to quote the director.


Almodovar pays tribute to the positive parts of Spain, which he had experienced as a child. “Volver” is homage to supportive neighbors, unmarried or widowed women who live alone and take care of their neighbors.  This also was Almodovar’s personal acknowledgement of the final years of his own mother, who was helped by her closest neighbors, and served as inspiration for the composite character of Agustina.  One of the film’s memorable moments finds Agustina, alone on an empty and dusty road forlornly watching as Sole’s car disappears in a long shot into the horizon. It conveys the notion of rural solitude, ordinary life stripped of any adornment.


Penélope Cruz has shown (from her screen debut in Bigas Luna’s “Jamón, Jamón”) that she is more forceful in playing working-class characters.  In “Live Flesh,” Penelope played an uncouth hooker who goes into labor and gives birth on a bus. She appeared only in the first eight minutes of the film, but she made such an impression that she was remembered for the rest of the tale.  In “All About My Mother,” she was memorable as the resilient yet sensitive nun named after a flower, Rosa.  In “Volver,” Cruz’s Raimunda belongs to the same type of woman that Carmen Maura had played in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a force of nature, undaunted by any man—or any obstacle.  But unlike Maura’s Gloria, Cruz’s Raimunda is also a fragile woman who can be furious one moment and defenselessly fragile a moment later. This disarming vulnerability surprised Almodovar about Cruz as an actress, along with her speed in getting in touch with her innermost feelings.[ix]


Watching how Cruz’s beautiful brown eyes suddenly fill with tears was an indelible sight.  Almodovar noticed how at times the tears spill over like a torrent, or in other sequences, how the tears fill her eyes without ever spilling over.  Witnessing what he described as “balance of tears within imbalance of crying” was thrilling, indicating Cruz’s contribution to the overall emotional impact of “Volver.”[x]  For Cruz’s wardrobe, Almodovar and his costume designer decided on straight skirts and cardigans, because they are classic garments, feminine and popular in any decade. The wardrobe was meant to channel the young and voluptuous Sophia Loren in her pre-Hollywood career, when she played sexy simpletons like a Neapolitan fish-seller.  To approximate Loren’s sensual and lush look, Cruz wears a similar hairdo, dresses with deep cleavage, and extra pads to her butt to look bigger and rounder.


Many viewers were happy to see Carmen Maura back in Almodovar’s work, two decades after a falling out.  A song by Chavela Vargas, whose lyrics go, “You always go back to the old places where you loved life,” applies to his reliable cast.  Songs by the Latin American singer Vargas had accompanied crucial scenes in “Live Flesh.” There is a long sequence in “Volver,” almost a monologue, in which Maura’s ghost-like character narrates to her daughter the reasons for her death and for her return.  It took a whole night to shoot this sequence but it was rewarding.  Almodovar said that he cried each and every time he revised the text for this scene.[xi]  He later admitted with self-deprecating humor that his conduct was not original.  The inspiration for his emotionalism derived from Kathleen Turner’s persona in “Romancing the Stone,” an author of kitschy romantic novels who cries whenever she is writing.[xii]


Just like “All About My Mother,” “Volver” represent a lovely portraiture of women. The grandmother Irene who comes back is played by Carmen Maura, her two daughters are Lola Dueñas and Penélope Cruz, Yohana Cobo is the granddaughter, and Chus Lampreave is Aunt Paula, who still lives in the village. The ensemble also includes Agustina, the neighbor who knows the family’s hidden secrets.  Agustina is a woman who as soon as she gets up taps on Aunt Paula’s window and doesn’t let up until Paula answers. Agustina opens her home to the corpse in order to give it a proper wake until the nieces arrive.  She has the ability to convert the mourning for her neighbors into mourning for her own mother, who had disappeared years ago.  Agustina behaves as if she is an integral member of Raimunda’s family.  An opposite type of neighbor than Agusina, who hates his neighbors and transmits his hatred from generation to generation, also exists in the film, and not surprisingly, he is a male.


Confessions—Almodovarian style—dominate the last reel.  As we expected and suspected, Paco is not the daughter’s birth father, though he has raised her as his own.  Thus, Raimunda, sexually abused by her own father is both the mother and sister of her daughter, just as Faye Dunaway revealed in the notorious, much imitated climax of Polanski’s “Chinatown” (“she’s my daughter, she is my sister…”).


The final chapters center on Agustina, now suffering from terminal cancer and determined to find out what had happened to her mother (Thematically, “Volver” could be easily called “All About Her Mother “)—it’s her last wish.  Having performed invaluable duties of caring for Aunt Paula until the latter’s death, Agustina feels she is entitled to the same honorable treatment from Irene and Raimunda.


The very last scene is extremely touching, even by Almodovar’s high standards.  Irene takes care of the dying Agustina, administering the injection needed to relieve her of pain, and perhaps help her die quitelt and peacefully in her own bed, before she “is returned” to the grave she had already prepared for herself.  Irene is watching TV, allowing Almodovar to pay tribute to another great actress in a quintessential maternal role: Anna Magnani in Luchino Visconti’s 1951 comedy, “Bellissima.”  A force of nature, Magnani (nicknamed in Italy “la lupa”) plays Maddalena, the overbearing stage mother of a daughter who has no talent.  Standing in front of the mirror, Maddalena is combing her hair, and at point it feels as if she is staring directly at Irene’s eyes.  Irene turns of the TV and engages in the film’s last dialogue, which offers a more ambiguous closure than is the norm for Almodovar.  Though unclear whether Agustina is dying in a case of euthanasia, she tells Irene, “That’s our business.” To which Irene responds, “That’s right. And nobody’s else’s.” Having redeemed herself and having reached rapprochement with her alienated daughter Raimunda, Irene closes the door and the screen turns black before the end credits begin to roll down.


A film about a family of women, “Volver” is also made by a family of female actors, both reel (on screen) and real (off screen).  On this picture, Almodovar’s sisters served as his advisers, when he shot scenes in La Mancha and Madrid.  They made sure that the sites of the hair salon where they work, the kitchen where they prepare meals, the bathrooms, and even the cleaning materials are all authentic.  Then there is the presence of two quintessential actresses of Almodovar’s troupe, a generation apart, Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz, with the former passing the torch to the latter, echoing the relationship between Divine and Ricki Lake in John Waters’ “Hairspray.”