Pedro Almodovar’s VOLVER (2006) is a vibrantly colorful film that explodes on the screen with a wealth of flavor. The variety of spices this cinematic dish delivers include a nicely paced story with a rich balance of plot and sub-plots, a sublimely acted cast, a heavy dose of themes, and dash of a heart-soaring musical score. The themes are served in plentiful. Love, forgiveness, death, family, superstition, culture, tradition, survival… just barely scratches the surface. The diverse and rich emotional range of this film is what really completes it.
Being a film that includes a few surprises, one not dare to spoil it by giving away too much. Instead, let’s whet the appetite with a taste of the beginning of this story. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her teen daughter Paula go to visit Raimunda’s mother’s grave. Many older women of the town are dutifully cleaning up their loved ones’ grave sights as strong winds prevail. Along with her sister Sole, Raimunda and her daughter visit their aunt Paula who is showing signs of physical fraility and dementia.
Despite her obvious limitations, there are signs that she is being well cared for. They assume it must be aunt Paula’s next-door neighbor Agustina who is experiencing health concerns of her own. They visit with Augustina, as she puffs on marijuana to improve her appetite, who says she looks in on Paula. She asks them if they’ve seen their mother Irene at Paula’s house. She mentions that the local villagers have claimed to have seen their mother’s ghost. They scoff at her question and attribute it to the town’s reputation for insanity due to the constant strong winds.
Back at their place in Madrid, Raimunda and her daughter face much bigger challenges. After coming home from a long day at work, Raimunda discovers the aftermath of a gruesome scene that has left Riamunda’s husband Paco dead. Young Paula acted in self defense when she killed Paco but is left with the grim horror of what just occured and the haunting mystery of what Paco meant when he said he wasn’t her real father anyway.
Volver in spanish roughly translates “to return” or to “come back.” This film’s purpose is assuredly just that. The main drivers of this story are strong yet realistically flawed female characters who look to solve their problems by dealing with family secrets and returning home to their familial roots.
Penelope Cruz- Raimunda
Carmen Maura- Irene
Lola Duenas- Sole
Blanca Portillo- Agustina
Yohana Cobo- Paula
Chus Lampreave- Tia Paula (aunt Paula)
Antonio de la Torre- Paco
Carlos Blanco- Emilio
Maria Isabel Diaz- Regina
Neus Sanz- Ines
Penelope Cruz magnetically lights up the screen as Raimunda. We see all facets of her. Her physical presence is stunningly attractive, determined and sexy, not unlike a young Sofia Loren. Her performance draws you in with a full range of emotions as this part demands. She is believable as the protective mother, the quibbling yet bonding sister, and complex daughter. It’s not surprising that Cruz was nominated for this role for Best Actress that year by the Academy, along with many other awards. (See the imbd list here) She represents the very first Spanish-born actress to earn an Oscar nomination.
The cast is strong across the board with a predominately female focus. Even the small parts are completely charming. Very few lines are spoken by men and most of the plot lines that involve men are delivered through the perspective of the female characters. What a refreshing change.
One theme that pervades or rather haunts this film are the underlying secrets. How the characters choose to create, keep, bury or share these secrets is a constant underlying stream that flows throughout the entire film. It’s interesting to see how these secrets control their lives and often dictate their destinies. These secrets are quite dark and remain in the family to repeat history. This also ties into the additional theme of family.
A clear theme is undoubtedly the relationships between the female characters. The dynamics of female bonding feels authentic, not forced or fake, and is frequently the source of very humourous moments. In particular, the mother-and-daughter complex relationship between Irene and her daughter Raimunda and again between Raimunda and her daughter Paula are deeply heart-warming, sweet and complicated- just like real mothers and daughters. Overall, this is a story of family, dysfunction, joys and all.
Death and the after-life are also themes that make an appearance. Many cultures as witnessed here (and in my own Irish culture) embrace death more than fearing death as a common topic to address head-on in songs, poetry and film so this is no exception. There are also theme notes of culture and superstition. From quirky mannerisms to references of food and music, there are bite-sized sharings of this spanish culture that is pure delight. The superstitious hints add to the many flavors of this film.
The score is wonderful and appropriately fitting. There is a stand-out moment where Raimunda sings a beautiful song that her mother taught her as a child. It’s not Cruz’s real voice but a beautiful scene, nonetheless.
I loved the vibrancy of this film and all its characters. The layers of sisterhood is a far cry from the stereotypical sugary chick-flick, nor is this a shallow soap-operatic Lifetime production. I related to the matriarchal family structure as my own family is very similar. I’m close to my sister and daughters, as are the women in my family. We jokingly call my father’s closely-knit six sisters who seem to take on a community appoach to raising many of my cousins as ‘the coven.’ The women in VOLVER (2006) feel real and we root for them, even as they make mistakes. And while they are victimized, they are hardly victims.
This post is my contribution to the Hispanic Heritage Blaogathon hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN and Kay of MOVIE STAR MAKEOVER taking place October 11-12. Check out both of their fabulous blogs for the complete list of participants.