Nov 16, 2006


It's been years since I liked a Pedro Almodóvar movie. I admired his very first movies: Law of Desire, What Have I Done to Deserve This, Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But in recent times I found his movies to be pretentious and overwrought without the freshness and verve of his earlier work. I liked Bad Education as an interesting failure, was not that thrilled with Talk to Her (I really hated its cinematic namedropping -- pretentious musical numbers by Pina Bausch, Caetano Veloso and Chavela Vargas really rubbed me the wrong way) and I had no patience for the sordid melodramas of The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother. They seemed no better or sharper than the common variety Mexican telenovela.
I am so happy to report that with Volver, Almodóvar is back in style. Volver boasts a magnificent ensemble cast of phenomenal actresses, led by Penélope Cruz and with the miraculous return of the long departed Carmen Maura, who is a national treasure of Spain and one of the most formidable actresses of all time, in my humble opinion. She apparently had a feud with Almodóvar which is why she didn't grace any of his movies for many years. But now they have kissed and made up. Fittingly, she plays someone whose return is quite unexpected, thus making it a doubly delightful surprise.
The buzz out there is that Penélope Cruz is most certainly going to be nominated for an Oscar. She has always been a very good actress. She is a true movie star: gorgeous, alive, hypnotic, endlessly charismatic. And in this movie she is a stunner. I defy any American actress to muster her pep and vim and sexiness and soulfulness. However, the Oscar nomination, if there is justice in the world, should go to Carmen Maura. She is a great tragic comedienne. It is impossible not to be touched by her. One look of hers tells entire volumes. And how refreshing to see her without an ounce of botox or plastic surgery, all the wisdom and pain of her age reflected in her face. There is a scene where someone is watching a movie on TV with Anna Magnani and the homage is fitting. Volver is Almodóvar's paean to the strength of women, and La Magnani and La Maura are in the same league: genuine divas, larger than life.
Chus Lampreave, (who I've been campaigning for the Spanish government to erect a statue in her honor, or at least give her a postage stamp), always plays slightly eccentric, slightly mad Spanish women whose view of the world is entirely logical only to them. She is hilarious. Here, she sadly appears for a very short time, but a two-word line comes out of her mouth with so much comic baggage, it's miraculous. And Blanca Portillo, as a youngish lonely woman, most probably a lesbian, stuck in an old provincial town, is also something to behold.
The ensemble deserves the acting prize the won at Cannes. They all rock.
Volver is classic Almodóvar: a comic melodrama that both skewers and pays homage to deep Spanish culture, and also an anthem to the pluckiness and the courage of women. It will remind viewers of his comic masterpiece, Women on the Verge, but Volver has a more poignant, calmer, profound quality. Volver is about the need for forgiveness and the need to set things straight. It's about the buried pain behind the human mistakes brought on by love. The title is taken from a famous tango, I believe, by Carlos Gardel. Volver is a tender, human and extremely enjoyable film. Even when it hits the heights of melodrama, it tempers it with smart dialogue and gentle irony. Calamities pile themselves on top of one another, but the tone is breezy and warmhearted. I wish the American audiences could enjoy the flavorful language. The characters speak with the most delightful Iberian mix of insolence and innocence. Almodóvar is a master in mimicking the most banal conversations, the most feminine gossip. He is a great observer of the quotidian. This beautiful, elegant, rounded screenplay is very well written, in contrast to some of his recent work.
Volver is beautifully shot by Jose Luis Alcaine, a longtime collaborator of the director, in rich tones, colorful but not as tacky as the usual; with deep blood red as a recurring visual motif. There are scenes with modern windmills in La Mancha, the place where Don Quixote and the director both hail from. In Almodóvar's vision of Spain the old traditions coexist uneasily with the new and it is a little crazymaking. You can tell how fond he is of what makes Spain, Spain: the food, the superstitions, the little old ladies and their excessive reliance on prayer and gossip; and yet the narrowmindedness exasperates him. He also comments on the appalling incidence of spousal abuse, the kind of provincial attitudes towards foreigners, or anybody slightly different, the self-same superstitions, and the idiotization of the masses by what he calls TVBasura, Trash TV. As in the best of his movies, Volver is a portrait of Spain through its women, resourceful, chaotic, emotional, bighearted, wise and courageous. His mastery of the tragicomic reminds me of Chekhov. Volver is this good.

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