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Volver: A Community of Women

Almodovar's "relational mystery" uses communication to overcome danger, time and death


Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's newest film Volver ("to return") begins with a scene of women in a cemetary cleaning the graves and tombs of their dead husbands while a stiff wind continuously litters the area with more dirt and debris. Volver contains several such unusual and memorable images, including a brief scene of more than a dozen female mourners, dressed in black, comforting each other at a wake. 

But Volver is not primarily about death. It's an effervescent movie enlivened with the interactions and conversations of several fine actresses. After her death, Irene (Carmen Maura) returns at a crucial time in the lives of her family to attend to unfinished business. Her daughters Raimundo (Penelope Cruz), Sole (Lola Duenas), and granddaughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) are dealing with a very stressful situation. Two unexpected deaths occur and something has to be done with the bodies. "I've come back to ask you to forgive me," Irene says. However, there is much more here than simply the need for forgiveness. Questions about the past haunt the memories of the women in Volver: a fire, a missing woman. And who is Paula's father? In the town where these women live, the east wind blows without mercy and is accused of driving people crazy. The town is full of widows because the women outlive the men.  

Volver has been described as a comedy and is sprinkled with small laughs. However, it's more accurately described as a "relational mystery," a film that contains a mystery, but the mystery is in the background. Although the mystery drives the story, we don't even notice it until the film is half over because relationships overshadow it. Volver is a remarkable film, and it's certainly more fascinating than funny.

As in several of Almodovar's previous films, men are barely visible. They are shadows that pass through Volver's images and through the lives of the "real" people in Volver, who of course, are the women. The women are the people Almodovar really wants us to know. The men in this film remind one of ignored or barely tolerated pets, and when they assume a larger role, it's usually not in the best interest of the women. 

"I like scenes where two characters confront each other," Almodovar writes, "My films are full of them." Volver displays its director's fondness for verbally confrontational scenes between two people. According to Almodovar, "One can tell the story of the Universe through scenes between twos." The "story of the Universe" is debatable, but Volver certainly does a compelling job of telling the story of the relationships between these women with intelligent and pointed dialogue.

Although all the women in Volver display impressive acting skills, and the memory of their faces remain with the viewer long after the movie is over, the top star of this film is clearly Cruz. Her striking appearance is intended to garner the focus of the audience, and she rises to the opportunity. She's the center of attention, and the other actresses revolve around her like planets around their sun. Is Cruz--at 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches tall--really that much taller than the other women in this film, or is it just the hair and heels?

Almodovar has addressed the relationships between generations of women in earlier films, but never with such a strong sense of community. Even with death lurking nearby, and Sole saying that she's "alone, as usual," no one in Volver seems alone and isolated. Whenever relationships are jeopardized and isolation threatens, we have no doubt that the hurdles these women face will be successfully challenged, as demonstrated by Irene when she tells her granddaughter, "Your mother didn't love me, and it really hurts when a daughter doesn't love her mother." Honest confrontational communication shatters the barriers created by danger, time and death.

Those who are hesitant fans of Almodovar can breathe a sigh of relief. Volver is one of his best films. His use of color is finely tuned and avoids the cheap, gaudy appearance of a few of his earlier films. We can hope that films like the misogynist Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, and the bland Bad Education are a part of Almodovar's past. Along with sensitive and intriguing films like Talk to Her and All about My Mother, Volver will take its place as one of Almodovar's most worthwhile and original productions. It's a lively and refreshing film that leaves the viewer with a new appreciation of the efficient power of women, their communication and their relationships.

Almodovar quotes are from under the title "doors and cars: scenes between twos."