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October 5, 2006

The Return of Pedro

Perennial NYFF-er Almodovar brings Volver and (some lady named Penelope) to Lincoln Center

The way I figured it, the New York Film Festival would have its typical media blowout to start with -- last week's crush surrounding Little Children -- and then conclude with the grand finale of the Coppola/Dunst Revisionist Revolutionary Revue set for Oct. 13. Not to bore you with shop talk or anything, but such frenzies inspire both heavy-hearted dread and shoulder-shrugging bemusement around Reeler HQ, where sometimes all we want is just to somewhere low-pressure and without electricity. A mountain cabin, say, or perhaps Queens.

Which is all just a way of defending my surprise at the sheer volume of hype blanketing yesterday's Volver screening at the Walter Reade Theater. Sure, director Pedro Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz are international A-listers, but even Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker -- who has been bringing Almodovar's work to the NYFF for years -- gawked at the crowded aisles and camera clack from the back of the room and acknowledged to me that he had never seen New York respond to an Almodovar film with this kind of sustained intensity.

So how was Almodovar feeling about it? "I feel here like I'm at home," he told The Reeler, conveniently in keeping with Volver's literal translation, "to return." But more on that in a second. "This is a privilege being in the New York Film Festival. As you all know, this is a very elitist film festival, and I feel very proud. I've come so many times, and it's always a symbol that the movie is going to do well in this country, because this is always the first door I cross before the movie is released in the United States. I'm very happy to be here."

Awww. On behalf of the entire city, we are happy to have him as well, especially for Volver. Not that the film is any earth-shattering return to transgressive genius (a la Matador) or kitchen-sink sex comedy (a la What Have I Done to Deserve This?), but rather a fine, absorbing tapestry of melodrama and magic realism. As the strained working-class mother Raimunda, Cruz's tenuous family balance implodes when a minor... misfortune befalls her unemployed husband and her own late mother (Carmen Maura) appears to return from the dead. Or has she? Or was she ever dead? The Almodovar women are all here to work it out, three generations' worth of momentum: Maura and Cruz evade each other emotionally and physically, leaving Raimunda's sisters (Lola Duenas and Chus Lampreave) and daughter (Yohana Cabo) to redefine a wrenched family dynamic full of secrets and surprises.

And not just a little love, Almodovar told his audience Wednesday. " 'Volver' is to return--I went back to my roots," he said. "And it was incredible. It was something I didn't expect during the shooting. The shooting is where I see that the worst can happen, but also the best. But usually the negative things happen more. And just to go back to the same place that I was born -- where I lived for my first eight years, the place I saw all the time with my mother. ... It's more important to return in the movie. But I also came back to talk about the universe. I came back to work with Carmen Maura; we haven't worked together in 18 years. I also came back with Penelope; the last time we were here, it was seven years ago [for All About My Mother]. And also, "Volver" is the title of a very famous tango -- I don't know if you know it -- by Carlos Alberto Estevez, the best tango singer in history. And "volver" means also the passing of time, and also it talks about the coming back of the mother. I mean, there is a lot of meaning in this type of "volver."

Volver is by far the warmest film in the expansive Almodovar canon, perhaps even a tad overdone with jokey existential alarm. Brilliant as they are, Maura and Cruz's own returns as mothers (absolved mothers, natch) signal a cloying self-referentiality that would devastate a lesser filmmaker; the truth is that despite your inclination to think he has sold out or softened up or lost the plot, Almodovar is the most eminently deep and watchable filmmaker since Bergman. You don't go back to his films as much as you back to him; why else do you think Sony worked out its Viva Pedro series in advance of Volver's Nov. 3 release? Even a hardened cynic like yours truly can't chalk that up entirely to marketing. First of all, it's too expensive. Second of all, it's too good.

"The communication was so easy between us," Cruz said of reconnecting with her mentor. "Sometimes we didn't need words. And it just gets better and better every time. On this movie, we spent six months together. It was a very intense experience, but it was beautiful. We understand each other very well; we almost know what the other is thinking sometimes. Maybe the thing I found a little different than I should was that he told me has had a feeling a peace with everyone on the set. He was very peaceful, and would always laugh, and I care a lot about him, so I was very happy to see him like that -- so happy on the shoot. We were shooting close to where he grew up; I don't know if it had to do with that. It was something special in this movie -- some humanity that we all talk about, and it was very real for us. And we think it came from him."

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