January 22, 2007


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The word “volver” in Spanish means “to return.” Imported from Spain and released in limited markets (the “smart” ones with art-houses) last December, the plot of Volver revolves around the not-so-trivial tribulations of a matriarchal family and how they survive together the blows that life deals them.

The idea that Volver is aimed at women should not denigrate it as a “chick flick.” These days, that term is loaded with images of lovelorn thirty-somethings desperate for the touch of a man — and Hugh Grant. But Volver is ostensibly a woman’s film because all of the central characters (and 90% of the peripheral characters) are women. Smart women, actually, with real problems that don’t involve Hugh Grant. Problems like paying the rent, or taking care of a crazy aunt, or cleaning up the blood in the kitchen after your daughter stabs your husband to death.

Volver laces mystery into a “dramedy.” There is murder, incest and terminal illness, but somehow also subtle comedy interwoven into the fabric. The opening shot depicts a blustery graveyard, and it appears that Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her onscreen sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), and daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), will most likely return to their mother’s grave at some point. Upon visiting their frail aunt, the sisters learn that their mother’s ghost has been spotted around town by some villagers.

Modern Madrid residents that they are, the sisters hesitate to believe any village ghost tales and resume their city lives. Raimunda must deal with the ironically casual subplot of the semi-accidental impaling of her father at the hands of Paula, who subsequently opens up a restaurant to compensate for the lost earnings of her late husband. But when the ghost of the mother visits Sole, the daughters’ pasts are truly examined to comprehend all the bizarreness that pursues them in the present.

The cast reacts to each heartbreak and setback with a spunky attitude that solidifies the reality onscreen. Life goes on, even in their fake world, so thus, they achieve authenticity. Furthermore, Almodóvar does not pander to the Hollywood convention that women are crazy over-emotional creatures, incapable of existing beyond the scope of their romantic yearnings. Not only are the characters strong, self-sufficient role models, but they escape two-dimensionality and attain sexiness at the same time.

Surely the notoriously female-adoring gay director set this as a goal for the script when he wrote it. Volver remains constant in the emotional meter, because in their world, there is just not enough time to waste on trivialities like dead husbands when there’s a restaurant full of hungry customers. Once the movie introduces the women to the audience, the women then demand their fair share of respect.

The film is decidedly Spanish in style, but universal in appeal and message. For one, Volver takes place in the city with occasional trips to the country, reflecting the lives of a majority of Spaniards. These women set up camp in Madrid but have roots in the nearby village; even their ghosts maintain that tradition. However, the underlying ideals of love, family, perseverance and truth overcome any geographic specificity, as well as the onscreen gender imbalance. And even in Spain, the city-dwellers often view their village neighbors as country bumpkins with a flair for the supernaturally dramatic. And sometimes the villagers view their city-dwelling neighbors as haughty and self-important.

Cruz, who in America is best known for her turns in such dramatic masterpieces as…Tom Cruise’s first post-Nicole girlfriend/minion, finally receives her big break to earn the full fame that she deserves. She had to return to Spain to do so, and she will probably have to again in the future if she wants to star in another thoughtful picture.

Contemporary American pictures with ideas arrive few and far between (like, every December), and the ones that feature central female characters as opposed to a tortured wife/girlfriend/daughter/mother to the marquee male are an endangered species. Why else do Judi Dench and Meryl Streep stockpile the Academy Award nominations year after year?