Returning to “Volver”: What Happened When Pedro Almodóvar Calmed Down

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Someone slipped Pedro Almodóvar a Valium back in 2006. Yes, the delectable high-pitched frenzy of his then recent films such as Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Live Flesh (1997) with their trademark super-Almodóvar stylizations and quirks suffusing nearly every frame, was put aside for the moment.

Yes, in Volver, there are no gigantic vaginas confronting miniature men, no stories within stories within stories highlighting the travails of sexually-abused, pre-op transsexuals, and no frenetic heterosexual copulations committed as acts of revenge.

Instead, what we have here is an at-times plaintive love letter to women: a paean to their humor, their loyalty, and especially their ability to survive their encounters with cheating, lying fornicators who employ their penises as weapons of submission. In fact, the ladies chronicled here often prosper after their men’s demise, even if these mujeres are personally responsible for their hombres’ rather violent and premature expirations.

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But then, not unlike Eric Rohmer and George Cukor, Almodóvar has always been fascinated by the female sex. Within his oeuvre, straight men, with a few exceptions, are often assigned minor roles. No Mel Gibson/Danny Glover buddy films for him.

In 1980, the helmer noted, “I’m aware that the fact that I like the private lives of women may still be a reflection of machismo. But I hope not because I’m interested in women and their world, not just when they go to gossip in the bathroom, but at all times. I believe I’m one of the least machista men in the world, one of the most authentically feminist.”

Certain of Almodóvar’s offerings have belied that claim. Tie Me up! Tie Me Down! (1990) features an actress falling in love with a man who kidnaps her, slaps her, and then forces her to go to the bathroom in front of him. In Kika (1993), there is a 20-minute-or-so rape played for laughs.

But since then, the more mature Pedro has indeed displayed his “feminist” nature, especially in the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999) and more recently in the very easy-to-overlook Julieta (2016).

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He did so again with Volver, which is Spanish for “return.” Here two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), find their lives are in immediate upheaval for extremely dissimilar reasons.

The duo, along with Raimunda’s teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), has gone back to their hometown of La Mancha for what appears to an annual clean-the-tombstone holiday. Yes, the cemetery is packed. All the widows are there a-shining, while fighting the East Wind, which is doing its best to hinder their efforts. (The East Wind, by the way, is acknowledged for creating madness wherever it blows.)

The siblings are there to care for the graves of their parents who supposedly died in a fire in bed, holding on to each other in great love. When Raimunda’s and Sole’s cleansing tasks are completed, they go and visit their elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who is frail and losing both her memory and her mind. But how, they wonder, is the dear eccentric existing? Someone seems to be cooking for her and keeping house. The villagers say it is the ghost of the sisters’ dead, burnt-alive mother, Irene (Carmen Maura).

Before you can get the garlic and a cross out, Raimunda, a cleaner at an airport, winds up with the corpse of her husband, which she places in a freezer. As for Sole, who runs an illegal beauty salon out of her apartment, she finds out she has a new roommate, the flatulent, feisty “spirit” of her mom.

To say more would be cinematically blasphemous.

It’s enough to note that Volver, while veering from comedy to tragedy and back, with its superb cast and the potent score by Alberto Iglesias, was another feather in Almodóvar’s already heavily feathered cap. (Cruz, as she did in Sergio Castellito’s

Don’t Move (2004), displayed the versatility of her acting chops.)

Although, there are indeed a few scenes here and there that are surprisingly flat, these are quickly overpowered by the humanity, grace, wit, and depth of Almodóvar’s grand vision.

(A version of this review originally appeared on New York Theater Wire.)

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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