Nearing the midway point of any film festival often leaves critics in a quandary. So much has been seen (always of varying quality, which is part of the “fun”) that the mind is overloaded with images, sounds, characters and plots that can blur the lines from one production to the next. But, thankfully, once in a while a film comes along that cleanses the palette with its excellence and sets the bar for the next half-dozen offerings to try to meet or surpass. Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is just such a film.
The Spanish master brings his own story to the screen with intense emotion, vivid characterization (so rare in too many of his colleagues) and a marvellous sense of magic where both the audience and the protagonists can’t believe their eyes.
This tale of family secrets, compulsive lying and life beyond the grave is told almost exclusively from a female point of view. As Raimunda, Penélope Cruz utilizes her stunning physique, marvellous sense of timing and deft glances to remove the necessity for pages of dialogue as she finds her world collapsing around her. The double deaths of her parents in an East-wind-fed fire is still relatively fresh in her mind when she must add two more losses nearly simultaneously.
Her beer-guzzling, unemployed husband (Antonio de la Torre—one of the token men who populate the proceedings—this can never be a romantic love story) is stabbed in a rape attempt, leaving his long-suffering wife and her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, whose maturity in the part belies her youth) with a bloody corpse on the kitchen floor. Mentally unstable, physically decrepit Aunt Paula also leaves the planet. She’s discovered by next door neighbour and confidante Agustina (Blanca Portillo) thanks to a ghostly intervention from Raimunda’s mom (delightfully served up by Carmen Maura).
Because of her unexpected body-disposal assignment, Raimunda infuriates her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) by blowing off the wake. Separated for a few years, the grieving sibling isn’t surprised at the strange behaviour but goes through a horrendous trial of her own when her departed mother reappears in her trunk and decides to move in.
Those narrative ingredients (and a few other strands) would overwhelm many filmmakers and leave the patrons scratching their heads. But Almodóvar always knows where he’s going, crafting his scenes in a manner that keeps everyone guessing and still makes his many comments about family values (or frequent lack thereof).
He has an enormous assist from Alberto Iglesias’ sumptuous and poignant score. Special mention must go to Andy Findon’s sensitive and dreamy soprano saxophone interventions whether above the edgy orchestrations as the lecherous husband is “relocated” or soaring in and around the strings as the complications mount up.
Humour is also inserted to balance the tragedies (Can a ghost fart? The local hooker seconded as a gravedigger) and unbelievable revelations. Inevitably, the ebb and flow can’t be sustained with every turn in the road, Augustina’s battle with cancer driving her to a TV talk show to confess all to earn a trip to Houston where “they cure everything” is not on par with the more believable “action/réaction,” but this sum is most certainly greater than its parts.
Dysfunctional families everywhere will savour then nervously wonder what a “volver” from an apparently deceased relative would do to the secrets they wanted to be just as dead as their possessors. JWR