November 22, 2006

Death and the Secret Lives of Women - Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver”

By E.A. Barrera

“Death is a continuation of my life without me ... life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“I have come back to maternity, as the origin of life and of fiction. And naturally, I have come back to my mother.”

-Pedro Almodovar

The mosaic of women - the culture, trials and character of women - is the subject-matter of Pedro Almodovar’s beautiful dark comedy “Volver.” It is the story of a woman returned from the grave, a beautiful young mother, her teenage daughter … and what they do when the daughter murders in self-defense after a rape attempt. He presents a complete landscape of the characters of women, even as he exposes the essential sub-culture which women occupy in society as a whole. How Almodovar manages to take such dark, serious material and turn it into an often rollicking comedy without losing its intensity is the delight of “Volver.”

“The family in ‘Volver’ is a family of women,” noted Almodovar. “My mother used to take me with her when she went to wash clothes … there were always several women washing clothes and spreading them out on the grass.”

Left to right: Lola Dueñas as Sole, Yohana Cobo as Paula, and Penélope Cruz as Raimunda

He said that for a great part of her final years, his own mother was helped by her closest neighbors and described his film as a tribute to the women of his village and what he termed the “female universe” and “the solidarity of neighboring women… the supportive neighbor who lives alone and makes the life of the old lady next door her own life.

“The women in the village spread out (their) problems, they share them… and they manage to make life much more bearable,” said Almodovar.

In Almodovar’s best films there is a secret subclass within a community where the women exist. Just as in 1987’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”; 1999’s “All About my Mother”; or 2001’s “Talk to Her,” Almodovar presents women in this film as the life force of a community, yet often caught in a twilight between childhood and adulthood that they are never allowed (or expected) to exit.

The opening scene of “Volver” encompasses this condition, with a panning shot of women from a small village in Spain cleaning and sweeping away leaves from the above-ground catacombs of the village’s cemetery. It is a beautiful scene of foliage blowing in a strong wind while the village women take great, ritualized care of the tombs. In Almodovar’s world, women are the sexual attractant which brings life into this world; the protectors of the young; and the caretakers of time who tend to the dead.

The young mother Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is a classic model of European womanhood - complete with the clothing and curves reminiscent of an early Sophia Loren. Cruz delivers the best performance of her career, using an under-current of feeling and emotion that is honest and poignant. Like Loren, her looks and sexuality dominate the screen. But also like Loren, Cruz demonstrates both the burden and the weaponry her sexuality can engage, as she deals with her character’s  problems.

With gorgeous cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine and a 1940s film-noir musical score by Alberto Iglesias, “Volver”  is a double murder story, involving what the women do with Raimunda’s husband after he has tried to rape their daughter, and an even darker mystery as to whether or not Raimunda’s mother ever really died in the fire - and if she did not, who was the woman with Raimunda’s father, and was the fire an accident or murder?

Death is the parallel subject of “Volver.” The magical realism made famous by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luisa Valenzuela, is utilized in this film - as well as the continuing impact the dead have upon the living. Almodovar has said the most important action within “Volver” is the appearance of the ghost of the mother. He is utilizing the myths of ghosts he grew up with among the women in the village, to explore the relationships between women - with each other, with the men of their lives, and their own inner demons and dreams.

“I never accepted death, I’ve never understood it,” said Almodovar. “The dead never die. ‘Volver’ is a tribute to the social rites practiced by the people of my village with regard to death and the dead. I have always admired and envied the naturalness with which my neighbors talk of the dead, cultivate their memory and tend their graves constantly. For the first time, I think I can look at it without fear, although I continue to neither understand nor accept it. I’m starting to get the idea that it exists. Despite being a non-believer, I’ve tried to bring the character (of the mother) from the other world… I’ve made her talk about heaven, hell and purgatory… the other world is here… the other world is this one. We are hell, heaven or purgatory, they are inside us.”

Maybe so, but for audiences in a theater watching “Volver” there is only one existence, neither purgatory or hell. It is only heaven… a splendid film.

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