November 3, 2006


Cruz has the role of her career in Almodovar's hand-stitched, gentle giant of a film

By Michelle Orange

"The past is never dead," goes the famous Faulkner quote, "it isn't even past." It's both a horrible and a heartening prospect, and in Volver, the two extremes are surveyed and set against each other in something of a fixed fight; it's a Pedro Almodovar film, after all, so tenderness generally wins the day. Much has been made of "the return" the translated title refers to ("come back" is another interpretation), with the Spanish director citing a return to comedy, the female world, two of his favorite actresses and of course his home of La Mancha. The most interesting backtracks, however, are less tangible; in this hand-stitched, gentle giant of a film, return is recovery -- by its very nature -- and all ghosts are friendly if you'd only let them in.

For if the past is never dead, the dead are never past, either, as each character discovers at least once. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas) are sisters living in a small, sun-baked village with the highest per capita rate of insanity in all of Spain; it's the kind of place where you can drag a body through the streets at night and no one will be out to notice.

Their mother Irene has died, and their aunt is dying, as the film opens. Raimunda's daughter, played by Yohana Cobo, is dealing with an even more personal death: that of her innocence. After their aunt passes, Raimunda and Sole learn that it was common knowledge to most of the village that their mother (or her ghost) tended to her sister in her ailing months. Bereft of her faithful patient, the mother (played by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown's wondrous Carmen Maura) returns to her daughters -- she comes bearing baggage, literally -- and the movie is structured around several bittersweet reckonings that follow.

My dad likes to say that there's only one thing a man needs to be attracted to a woman: eyeliner, lots of eyeliner. If that's true, then Penelope Cruz rules us all as the stubborn, coarse, loving, and unflinchingly loyal Raimunda. Cruz has said it's the role of her career, and she may be right: drawing heavily on the Sophia Loren of yore in stylizing her sumptuous beauty, both Loren in Two Women and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce are Raimunda's indomitable predecessors. Almodovar highlights Cruz's busty, romantic rusticity with nods to the loose, plaintive rhythms of neorealist films, layered over the classical composition and vivid melodrama of Sirk, with a topcoat of the menace and mirth of Hitchcock -- right down to a languorous clarinet playing over the tense aftermath of a murder.

It's tempting to call this a film not just about one community but about the human community -- living, dead, demons and angels -- and the return we make to ourselves and each other in search of peace, but there's a minor catch: men. Say what you will about them, but at the end of the day, they're human, though they hide it well in Volver. The men of Volver are liars, dirty cheats, incestuous or pseudo-incestuous; fathers are fluid, dispensable, and paternity is more of a petty detail. "Men are the problem," Irene tells her daughter upon learning she's single again. "Get rid of them and you can start your life." It's hard -- believe me -- not to let that one go with a sigh and a nod, but then there's the problem of Almodovar himself; Volver is his world but also his past, and its remarkable warmth is itself evidence that at least one man in La Mancha was loved, and loved well.

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