by Alison Ross I must admit that Pedro Almodovar is not one of my favorite directors. I have semi-enjoyed some of his oeuvre, and I thought Bad Education was pretty good, but generally I have found many of his films to be annoying indulgences in histrionic acting and kitschy atmospheres.
And while we're being blunt about things, I must concede that Penepole Cruz typically has not been an actress I fervently fancy. I have felt that her appeal both aesthetically and artistically is overhyped.
That said, not only is Volver one of my favorite Almodovar movies, but I would rank it in my top 15 films of all times. Too, I was an enthusiatic supporter of Cruz for an Academy Award. Not that the Oscars should be held in too-high esteem, but there are times when an artist is so deserving of recognition that it seems an inane oversight not to acknowledge them.
Volver is one of those movies that the more benightedly sexist among us would term "chick flick." Perniciously implicit in such branding is that movies which concentrate mainly on males or at least offer more balanced gender portraits are more "universal" in flavor.
But I find that to be a pathetically narrow purview. People are people, genders be damned. Of course there are differences between the sexes, and to ignore those obvious disparities or to attempt to minimize them is to be pitifully PC. I hate political correctness, even as I have been accused of it myself. I find political correctness to be intellectually insulting, and in the end such stifling linguistic police-statism exacerbates stereotypes more than it erases them.
But for too long have males been seen as representative of the entire human race. We don't call movies that focus on men "dude movies," and that's because it is culturally ingrained that men are the "standard," and are often seen to be the dominant gender.
Well, I don't practice misandry - I don't hate men at all, and I do cherish both genders for what they have to offer - but I refuse to cower in the shadow of men. And I refuse to accept the regressive notion of their superiority, because they are no more superior or inferior than women. The genders are equal in stature, and anyone who believes differently can suck my tit. On second thought, please don't do that.
So Volver focuses on a woman living in Madrid, Raimunda, and the female portion of her family: her teenaged daughter Paula, her sister Sole, her aunt Paula, her friend Agustina, and her mother Irene. Raimunda herself is beautiful and intelligent, but she is married to an alcoholic and a deadbeat. When her husband tries to rape her daughter Paula, Paula murders him, and Raimunda is forced to cover up the deed in order to protect her progeny.
Adding to these tiers of complication is the fact that her mother, Irene, has seemingly come back from the dead. In actuality, her mother was not dead to begin with, but has re-appeared in order to divulge long-harbored secrets and to reunite with her family.
The acting in this film in superb at times, and uneven at others. The strongest and most consistent acting emanates from Penelope Cruz, naturally, while the weakest actress is the woman who plays the sister. One can never be sure if her stiff and restrained demeanor is a purposeful part of the characterization or whether it's a result of a skill-deficit, but either way, it can be somewhat distracting.
But these are minor matters, as Penelope and the story itself are what propel the drama forward in a mostly dynamic and compelling manner. The dabblings in humor, too, helpfully leaven the gravity of the events and also enable us to connect more authentically with the characters, since in order to bear them, we must always discern the comedic dimensions in life's tragedies.
There are Almodovar's hallmark kitsch and colors in Volver, to be sure, but instead of saturating the senses in a way that overwhelms the movie's merits, the slightly tawdry atmosphere lends a sort of bright mysticism to the story, which in turn heightens the touches of magical realism intrinsic to the tale.
Mostly, however, Volver incites one to reflect contemplatively on the significance of our blood ties, and in particular on our spiritual tethers to our mothers.
And if a male cannot relate to these maternal motifs, and instead callously dismisses such themes as more oriented toward females, there is something profoundly wrong with him. Almodovar has managed to assert to the female as universal character and has also achieved a landmark cinematic creation. It's heartening that a country (Spain) so rife in color and culture boasts a director who can summon global familial pathos while at the same time subtly showcasing the charming idiosyncrasies of his native soil.
Let's hope Almodovar continues on this path, and that Penelope Cruz is able to flaunt her considerable talents more often.