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Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)

At the Bytowne to a surprisingly packed house (the first I'd experienced in awhile) with Krystle as part of our weekly movie-watching.

I had never seen an Almodóvar film and Krystle was a huge fan. Volver had seemingly gotten unanimously great reviews. And to be honest, I'm sure the biggest reason why I agreed to see this film was because of how gorgeous Penélope Cruz looked in the trailer.

"Dames. Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later there's no way you'd know." -Marv, Sin City

History has not treated the melodrama well. These days the very word evokes negative connotations of bad soap operas (a redundant term?). While the definition of the melodrama - "a virtuous character who finds himself or herself in distress due to circumstances not his or her fault. It is not the events in themselves that are emphasized, but the feelings that characters undergo. Their analysis of intricate and perplexing situations and resulting moral discriminations is highlighted, rather than the doing of good deeds" (1) - does not imply anything intrinsically maudlin, it offers a hint as to how it came to be looked as such. Melodramas essentially share the same inherent audience problems as most "art films" in that they eschew narrative and plot, the one element people have come to expect of a film. Is it any surprise that somewhere along the line directors, perhaps due to their own insecurities or lack of faith in the audience, began "punching-up" their films with the various cinematic devices that we've perversely become conditioned to derisively recognize as staples of the genre: over-the-top performances, histrionic fits of crying and self-pity, swelling music, Gone with the Wind-like "I'll never go hungry again!" speeches, kitschy affairs and murders up the wazoo.

On the surface, Pedro Almodóvar's Volver appears to be just another one of these bad melodramas. One of the first things that struck me about the film was the sheer number of scenes in which a character could be found crying. I can't recall another film with even half as many comparable occasions. But the very next thing I noticed was the manner in which Almodóvar was constructing these scenes. They lacked any of the aforementioned emotional punch-up or cinematic devices. He plays every single one as innocently as you could possibly imagine, foregoing not only an attempt to elicit tears from the audience but any sympathy at all! For these two event to coincide in any movie would be a significant occurrence, for it to occur within a melodrama is unheard of, and for it to occur repeatedly within a single melodrama is well, miraculous, and Volver is truly a miraculous touching and poignant work of as assured a director as I've ever seen.

The brilliance of Volver begins and ends with its beautifully etched all-female cast of characters. Take the character of Raimunda played by the radiant Penélope Cruz - who seems much more at home speaking her native tongue - in a film already full of weepers, she weeps the most, and yet comes off as one of the strongest most complex female characters I can recall in recent times. If this statement seems at all contradictory then that right there is a testament to how closed our cinematic minds have become, where women must be soft-hearted sentimentalists or cold-hearted bitches. The exclusive depiction of Malibu Stacy-like characters may be an inaccurate portrayal of women, but equally so are the un-sexed figures of a G.I. Jane. Almodóvar depicts Raimunda's tears not as a sign of weakness but as tribute to her encompassing empathy and feminine bond that she shares with her family and close friends. When she first finds Paco dead in the kitchen, she weeps and takes a moment to comfort Paula but "a few buckets later" she "goes to work" cleaning up the pools of blood around his body in the same determined manner she does at her job which is brilliantly illustrated in the two montages which compliment each other wonderfully. Raimunda's figurative wearing of different hats as a woman are further entrenched by the recurring symbol of the knife which we first see her clean as a dutiful wife washing the dishes, then again as she cleans the blood from it as a protective mother, and lastly as she chops vegetables with it as a restaurateur and provider. Just as the courageous man in battle is not simply the "hero" who lacks fear but performs his duty in spite of it, Almodóvar has no qualms with showing Raimunda or any of his lovingly-developed characters crying one moment and going to work in the next, which is to say that, he has no problem making them utterly and empathetically human.

Almodóvar's adherence to this emotional realism not only aids the believability of the characters themselves but also offers a convincing counterbalance to the sentimentality that inevitably arises from most melodramas. Any danger of overt and excessive sympathy being generated is held in check both by his aforementioned confidence in playing the scenes straight, but also in his sensitively written script. Unlike the usual upper-class settings of a typical melodrama, which as such lends itself more naturally to pretentious introspection and self-pity ("rich people with nothing to do"), Almodóvar's script about these lower class rural women has them so beset with pragmatic troubles alone that they possess neither the time nor the pseudo-intellectual/philosophical disposition to perform any self-psychoanalysis (the "crass" Sin City quote no longer appears to seem be so out of place does it?). It's significant that the only instance in the film where Raimunda is given a moment's rest is at the wrap party where she sings the song which gives the film its very title, and even then she is only coerced into doing it for the sake of her daughter who has never heard her sing before. Magnificent.

Even Cruz's natural beauty is treated as realistically as possible. Aside from an artificially enhanced butt, Almodóvar wisely and bravely foregos the - nowadays - common route of "uglifying" his actress ala Charlize Theron and Monster to amplify the supposed realism of the film. The only time Raimunda is seen dolling herself up is for the wrap party (i.e. her job) to make ends meet for the sake of her and her daughter. Her "business before pleasure" attitude is asserted when she tenderly admits to Paula that she herself is in no mood to party despite the airs she puts on.

One of the most beautiful and subtle of threads which I was surprised to have not seen mentioned in any reviews is that of the film crew member whom Raimunda briefly encounters in a few short scenes. There is that wonderful moment during one of the luncheons where the guy informs Raimunda that the crew will be taking the next day off, it appears he's going to ask her for a date, but before he's able to say anything else, an exhausted Raimunda sincerely replies that she's glad because she could sure use the day off. It's never clear whether or not Raimunda is even aware of the pass he is making. Even their later encounter at the wrap party where she she remarks that his looking at her makes her nervous is left nervously open and ambiguous. This, along with the murder plot reminded me so much of Max Ophüls' masterpiece, The Reckless Moment.

Even minor characters such as Raimunda's sister Solédad are so well acted and written that despite their limited screen-time in comparison to Cruz's Raimunda, they manage to appear just as three-dimensional. The one scene where Solé first takes in her mother and talks for the first and only time about her separation from her husband and then later on, crawls into bed watching her mother sleep imbues her character with a sense of emotional depth that transcends those of many main characters of other lesser films.

The women and story of Volver seem to truly evolve and flow naturally, void of any signs of manipulation. Almodóvar has managed to create a prototypical melodrama which returns the genre to its roots. The emotional responses on the part of the viewer are provoked not by typical self-manufactured sympathetic mechanisms of the film but by the realistic depictions of its characters. Their actions and story engender a sense of empathy which allows a much clearer and purifying sense of sympathy to organically blossom right through to the end of the film. Seeing a film like Volver reminds me of what a difficult feat that is and how lucky we the viewer should feel when it happens.

  1. Melodrama definition from: Tan, Ed S.-H., Nico H. Frijda (1999). "Sentiment in Film Viewing." In: Passionate Views. Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Plantinga, Carl, and Greg M. Smith, eds. Baltimore: John Hopkins
  1. A.O. Scott's NY Times Review
  2. North American Trailer - Not a single decent trailer exists for this film among the ones I watched (North American, UK, Spanish, German). Apart from keeping the language itself, there is nothing nice to say about any of them. They should have just copied the trailer for The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. It would have at least captured the film's captivating spirit of sorority better.

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Blogger DonECoyote said...

Did you write this after seeing the movie only once? I'm writing a paper on this and have watched it 4 times and some of what you said is still a revelation to me!! Thanks.

November 27, 2008  
Blogger Jon said...

Thanks :) Yep, it was just after the one viewing in theaters. Was all excited about the film so went home and made sure to write all my thoughts down before they floated away.

December 04, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your gay

June 08, 2018  

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