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October 9, 2006

Volver, 2006

volver.gifVolver ingeniously opens to the title sequence illustrating a familiar All Souls Day ritual in a rural village in La Mancha, a solemn occasion when families visit the gravesites of their loved ones in a day of caretaking, remembrance, and homecoming, as sisters Sole (Lola Dueñas) and Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), along with Raimunda's adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo, who coincidentally appeared in Carlos Saura's The Seventh Day, a film that also chronicles the repercussions of unraveling buried secrets in a small town), tend to the graves of their parents before paying a visit to their dotty aunt (Chus Lampreave), an ailing elderly woman who continues to live alone in the family home (under the watchful eye of a concerned neighbor named Augustina (Blanca Portillo)), even as the trauma of her beloved sister, Irene's (Carmen Maura) death has confined her to the memories of an eternal past present. This commemorative ritual that implicitly acknowledges the coexistence of the living with the dead provides an incisive prefiguration to the unforeseen complications befall the sisters after their return from La Mancha, as Raimunda's unemployed husband (Antonio de la Torre)'s transgressive impulses threaten to wreck their already tenuous relationship, and Sole returns home to find that the ghost of their mother had stowed away in the trunk of her car. Pedro Almodóvar's incomparable eye for detail and delightfully subversive dark humor suits his recurring paean to the strength, resilience, communality, nurturing, intuitiveness, and ennobled beauty of women especially well, from the neorealist-inspired working class clothing worn by Raimunda that nevertheless, exuded irrepressible sensuality (evoking the wardrobe of iconic actress Sophia Loren), to the image of Anna Magnani made immortal by late night television rebroadcasts, and especially to the metaphoric image of the Manchegan windmills that literally harness the collective energy of the elusive, enduring - and perhaps even a bit maddening - winds that blow across the rural landscape of this enigmatic town of secretive, superstitious, surviving women that visually reinforces the film's theme of return and eternal cycles.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 09, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, New York Film Festival


You seem to love most of Pedro Almodovar's films. What do you think of "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her"??

Posted by: rakesh on Oct 10, 2006 10:46 AM | Permalink

Thematically, I essentially prefer the rawness and experimentation of early Almodóvar, but visually, I prefer the sophistication of his later aesthetics, starting from Live Flesh and on. So while I like both All About My Mother and Talk to Her, as well as Bad Education and Volver, they still don't haunt me the way films like Matador and Law of Desire do. I'm still waiting for him to rekindle the rawness of spirit that his early films had and combine it with his now more "polished" visual style.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 10, 2006 9:08 PM | Permalink

Lovely write-up, Acquarello. Do you think that anyone, artists included, can return to the fiery expressions of their youth? Even the raw fires? Is it fair to want them to? It reminds me some of Laura Nyro, how people extolled the way she would burn up on stage in her youth and how they became dissatisfied with her more liquid, harmonic sound as she grew older.

Like yourself, I prefer Almodovar's later films (all save "Talk To Her", which I had problems with). But "All About My Mother" is brilliant. "Volver" is much quieter in some ways, but, it has stayed with me. I think of things from it during my days like one remembers fragments of dreams from the night before. I love your tilt against the windmills.

Posted by: Maya on Nov 05, 2006 2:11 AM | Permalink

Hi Maya, you have a good point there. I have to admit, having read Gwynne Edwards' Indecent Exposures book on Franco-era Spansh cinema (specifially Buñuel, Saura, Erice and Almodóvar), it really helped to contextualize and shape my understanding for that political dimension in his early films. But with Franco (and fascism) gone from the background, it's not really fair to expect him to continue in this vein of political subversion, any more than it's fair to keep expecting him to keep that hungry, self-taught approach to his craft by trial and error. Of his last four films, I would agree with you that All About My Mother is his best, partly because there is still that element of subversive activism in it in the discussion of AIDS. Maybe that's what's missing, that his stories are still rooted in the problems of the contemporary world, rather than being somewhat hermetic.

Personally, I feel very close to Volver also, because I grew up in a similar culture where part of my early childhood, we would also do this grave cleaning ritual, and there was also an ancestral home that we would visit that you really got a sense of your elders' passage. I don't know how to describe it, but Almodóvar really nails in that scene when Raimunda senses her mother's presence because she smells her "characteristic" scent.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 05, 2006 10:30 AM | Permalink

How fascinating that you have this childhood experience of tending the graves--an experience of liminality--which figures so strongly in my own Chicano background. We didn't clean graves so much as visited them frequently and memorialized the dead through family altars.

In Steven Marsh's great Senses of Cinema essay on Almodovar, he underscores the liminal importance of the gravesite when he writes: "It is perhaps because of this play on the boundaries of identity—or borderline ambiguities—that Almodóvar delights in threshold locations. His use of airports especially Madrid's Barajas airport, which appears in many of his films, from his second to his most recent; the dressing rooms of film studios, theatres, nightclubs, replete with mirrors that lend themselves to particular filmic effects; cemeteries, in Madrid, Barcelona and (again) in his latest film, Volver. These are points of transition but they are also locations of transformation."

As to the possible heirarchy of the senses in relation to memory, I think the notion of a visible ghost is way overtouted and that, more accurately, it would be smell or sound that would--at least for me--trigger memories more resoundly.

Posted by: Maya on Nov 05, 2006 2:12 PM | Permalink

Heheh, yup, we had the family altar too, and some of the rooms were closed off and left uninhabited after the death. I completely agree with you about the sensorial triggers also (versus a ghost sighting), for me it was more the smell, especially because they were specifically associated with the closed off room, so the two would become integrated in this sensation of "presence". It must be a cultural Catholic thing. :)

Hmm...the passage on Marsh's essay reminded of something that was written about Tsai Ming-liang's cinema also in the Dis Voir book on him - basically that the elevators, escalators, empty apartments in Tsai's films also serve a similar function of "points of transition" that can also be described as "locations of transformation". It's been a couple of years since I read the book, but I remember that the father's urn in What Time is it There? was the crystallization of this idea of the physical body as "vessel" for the transportation of the soul (or in a non-religious sense, a person's essence).

Anyway, I don't really know anything about queer theory, but I wonder if this is a recurring element in at least a kind of subset (or perhaps, overarching) theory of gender and sexual identity. I can't think of this element of "transformative" public spaces appearing in Fassbinder's cinema off hand, but there are several films where dislocation exists.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 05, 2006 6:42 PM | Permalink

That's a provocative line of inquiry. I've had Aaron Betsky's _Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire_ on my bookshelves forever. Maybe it's time to explore it to see if that thread can be woven into anything?

Posted by: Maya on Nov 06, 2006 4:22 PM | Permalink

you've had quite a fascinating discussion going on here, in which I - sadly - will not be able to join in due to lacking theoretical background. But I have a question for you cracks: You seemed pretty enthusiastic about Volver, and I agree with you that the theme is really wonderful. But while watching the movie I was somehow frustrated during the middle section (the restaurant, disposing of the corpse etc.) because I couldn't put that into relation with the main theme and was wondering where it might lead to... in the end, it leaded nowhere.
And I wonder, what did you make of this?

btw, great blog!

Posted by: Klaus on Jan 09, 2007 7:05 AM | Permalink

Actually, I thought that the re-opening of the restaurant and the disposal of the body was going back to Almodóvar's idea of the community of women, like the "village of widows" in La Mancha that the sisters came from, where they all lived independent (and resourceful) lives, and kept their closely guarded secrets, but always looked after each other. Raimunda tried to escape that destiny by moving as far away from La Mancha as she could and burying her past after she got married, but I think Almodóvar was illustrating that these traits/behaviors were still instilled in her, even if she wasn't conscious of it, like the "crazy wind" that you can't escape, and it will always come back to you.

Posted by: acquarello on Jan 09, 2007 8:39 AM | Permalink

alright, bonding and community-building among women makes some sense. Thanks!
But still, for me those parts of the movie somehow don't fit, and that's the main reason why I don't like Volver as much as the other Almodovars I've seen.

Posted by: Klaus on Jan 11, 2007 7:51 AM | Permalink

Interesting comment about combining rawness of early Almodovar films and visual style of his latest films. I could not agree more, and I do hope we will see it soon.

Almodovar is not my cup of tea, but I still think this was a step in a right direction. Cruz is brilliant, especially during the party in the restaurant. It was cool to see Carmen Maura again.

I particularly liked the story of ghost that showed up to be a living person. I really thought it was a ghost and I liked the idea. This reminded me a bit of Medem who still is my favourite Spanish director.

Posted by: Lecho on Mar 12, 2007 3:45 AM | Permalink

I do see Almodóvar as honing his craft more and more with each passing film, so I do think it's just a matter of time.

I'm really looking forward to Julio Medem's next feature, Caótica Ana. Sex and Lucia is the only film in his body of work that I could really live without, and Basque Ball, while I found completely fascinating, isn't exactly a signature "puzzle" film. So essentially, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, which I saw some eight years ago now, was the last Medem film that completely captivated me, so I'm itching for a fix.

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 12, 2007 7:50 PM | Permalink

Hi Acquarello,

It is nice to see that your favourite Medem film is actually one of my favourite films ever. And like you, "Sex and Lucia" is the only one I can live without. Have not seen “Basque ball” yet. "Vacas" is his next best film I my opinion and then probably comes "Terra". I like mystic part of his films, destiny, love, desire etc. Reminds me about my other favourite - Kieslowski.

I am glad to hear that he is coming with a new film.

As to "Volver", I was actually disappointed when the ghost showed up to be alive.

Posted by: Lecho on Mar 13, 2007 4:42 AM | Permalink

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