Directed by Pedro Almodovar. Spain. 2006.

Reviewed by Jamie Garwood and Peter Tonks

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Volver translates as ‘to return’ or ‘to go back’.  After the male-dominated ‘La Mala Education’, Pedro Almodovar, the most famous Spanish director returns to some of his favourite themes for his 17th feature.  Almodovar returns to the subject of women, La Mancha and two of his muses, Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura.  It tells the story of two sisters Raimunda (Cruz) and Soledad (Lola Duenas) who after the loss of their aunt, start seeing appearances of their deceased mother at the moment when their lives become more complicated.

Raimunda is the head-strong sister, married with one child to an unloving husband who has two jobs to maintain a livelihood.  Her husband though attempts to rape the daughter and so the daughter kills him, this leads to hiding the truth.  Soledad is single and works a private hair salon at her home; her name literally means solitude.  They are chalk and cheese, upon their first appearance at their parents grave they act more like friends which is explained later on.  Then the mother appears first to Soledad, and knowing that there is some hidden resentment between the two hides her from Raimunda.  The mother is played by Maura in an unkempt appearance (‘No wonder I gave you a fright.’)

Almodovar has always been more successful writing for women and prefers to write for them.  He empowers them, makes them funny while keeping them vulnerable.  His themes of authorship is always of contemporary material focusing on domestic plots on a par with soap operas but with a flamboyant edge.  Upon (finally) watching this I found the film to be the least flashy of his films, in terms of colour and unusual editing and camerawork.  The only flash of excess is seen nearer Cruz’s chest which is lusted over by Almodovar’s adoring camera-eye; at one point we have an overhead  shot of Cruz’s cleavage.  Though these are mute points, there is a useful juxtaposition of the city’s vibrancy and movement in contrast to the village life’s stillness and drabness.

The reason he is so good at writing for women, is that any man in this film disappears in one way or another.  One dies, one leaves for Barcelona and one who shares some attraction with Raimunda leaves town with the film crew he arrived in.  The biggest collective of men at the aunt’s funeral are kept in a separate room away from the more sympathetic women.  Women are there for women as a community of support; men are seen as the means to an end and that end is marriage.

I believe Volver is a strong film and return for Almodovar.  I do not believe it to be a return to form though as ‘La Mala Education’ was not a blip but again a strong film after ‘Talk to Her’.  Some critics upon its release remarked upon its feel of familiarity and laziness, but I think after the change of direction to a male led narrative, maybe he needed to return to a film he knew he could not fail at.  For Spanish audiences the opportunity to see Almodovar/Cruz/Maura together is a dream come true and maybe that’s how you should treat the film - a dream or god forbid, dressed up entertainment.

Jamie Garwood

After an initial scene at a cemetery, in which the two lead Sisters and a daughter dust the grave of their Parents who died in a house fire, we seem to be set for a mild domestic comedy/drama. When daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) stabs and kills husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre), the stakes should rise for Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), but she's made of stronger stuff. She hides the body in the freezer of a vacant restaurant, and opens the restaurant to provide catering for a visiting film crew.

Raimunda, her sister Sole (Lola Duenas), and Paula have come from Madrid to visit frail Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreve) who Raimunda would have living with her, if her own husband were not in the way. The cemetery they stop-off at en-route is crowded with other women who are tending the graves of their husbands. The Aunt's neighbour Augustine (Blanca Portillo) happens to arrive at the same time, to clean her own grave: it is the local tradition to buy your plot, and look after it while you are still alive. Spanish guitar then accompanies the trio as they drive through dusty farmland to the Aunt's village. Aunt Paula, who is “very shaky on her pins”, can hardly see, and asks if Raimunda has had the baby yet - yes, fourteen years ago - can cook tasty wafers, and has an exercise bike. When the three younger women leave they are loaded-up with home-made cakes and preserves supplied by the Aunt. Visiting the neighbour, we learn that Augustine's Mother disappeared on the day of the fire that killed Raimunda's Parents three years ago and it hasn't been reported yet. Raimunda washes-up at home as her husband watches the football and tells her that he has just lost his job. As finances are tight Raimanda decides she will have to work on her remaining free day.

Time passes. After shifts cooking breakfast, washing, and cleaning, Raimanda gets off the bus in the dark, to be met by Paula who has to report the incident with her Father. On top of this we hear that the Ghost of Raimunda's Mother (Carmen Maura) has been appearing, and turns-up in the boot of Sole's car.

Cinematography, costumes, and settings give visuals of bright colours in subtle tones. It all flows beautifully. We can laugh at the comedy that arises from absurd situations, yet still engage emotionally with the Characters. But if there is a sequel, one wonders how many of these people will still be around and how many will have disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances. 

Peter Tonks
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