How many of us have wished, at some point, for a dead parent or other relative or loved one to return to life? What would we say to them? What unfinished business could finally be resolved? Such wish-fulfillment is the subject of “Volver,” the most recent film by Pedro Almodóvar which was released on DVD a little while ago. It’s a powerful and touching film and, in my view, his best since his Oscar-winning “All about My Mother.”
In the tradition of Magical Realism, which is popular in the literature of many Spanish-speaking countries, the movie tells the story of Irene (Carmen Maura) who died in a fire four years before and now has come back from the dead. As the movie slowly and very skillfully unfolds, she first appears to her daughter Sole (Lola Dueñas), and then her granddaughter Paula (Yohana Coba), and then finally her last daughter Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) from whom she had been estranged. And while there are a number of rather funny scenes as Irene tries to keep herself hidden from those she is not yet ready to appear to, the movie is, in the end, a drama. More than one family secret will be revealed as eventually we find out why Irene has returned.
There are a few subplots—such as Raimunda’s husband (Antonio de la Torre) making sexual advances toward Paula which ends in his accidental death, a dear friend of the family (Blanca Portillo) desperate to find out what happened to her mother who disappeared, and Raimunda taking over an empty restaurant to feed a film crew—which seem to be unrelated to the main story of Irene’s return, but in time you realize each of these has a very good reason for being included.
All four leads—Maura, Dueñas, Coba, and Cruz—and Portillo in her supporting role—are just excellent. Granted, they have some powerful material to work with, but there’s something about the way Almodóvar directs women that just brings out the best in them. His male characters are often weak and even unimportant, but his female characters, and the actors who portray them, always seem to shine with amazing strength. They are thrown into extremely difficult, stressful, and emotional situations, but manage to dig deep down inside themselves and find the strength, sometimes unexpectedly, to rise above their situations. The characters in “Volver” are no exception to this rule and it’s wonderful to watch these captivating performances.
It also almost goes without saying that the cinematography, as in every Almodóvar film, is gorgeous. Lush interiors, wind-swept rural villages, and the crowded streets of Madrid, all show off their beauty. And yet Almodóvar’s trademark pallet of bright primary colors is more obvious in some scenes than others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—perhaps the toning down of colors in some scenes is a mark of growing subtlety and sophistication.
The only negative thing to say is that I must take issue with the American distributors of the film for not translating the title. Those who know Spanish know that “Volver” means to return or to come back. It’s an extremely appropriate title, but if you don’t know that—and I don’t think it’s fair to assume that most Americans do—you miss out on something important. Usually when foreign films are released in the US, the title is translated into English (“Y tu mamá también” being one of the big exceptions that comes to mind at the moment). Why they didn’t translate it, I don’t know, but I think it was a poor decision.
Personally, I’m fortunate because I still have both my parents, but far too many of my friends have lost at least one parent. No doubt, they will find this film quite moving, especially if they imagine themselves in the place of the characters in the movie. And for those of us still lucky enough to have our loved ones, perhaps this movie will encourage us to take care of unfinished business before it’s too late.
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