I’ve been meaning to write about Volver, the latest film from one of my most favorite filmmakers, for a little over a week. I bought the DVD recently, knowing I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t.
Volver takes for its occasion the brief snippet of the “novela negro” written by the lead character in Almodóvar’s earlier film The Flower of My Secret. Working-class Raimunda (a pneumatic Penelope Cruz) must deal with her family’s old dark secrets as she tries to cover up an entirely new one while putting food on the table for her daughter. The film is more than that: while family is the focus here, Daniel Mendelsohn rightly pointed out in his review in the New York Review of Books that this film is more about the solidarity of women than anything else.
This is familiar territory for Almodóvar, who explored this theme in earlier films like the magnificent All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But here, the tone is a bit different—wistful, probing, tender. The rich emotional lives of these characters is brought to the forefront much as it was in Mother, but the noir undertones of the film paint it in textured strokes.
I have never loved Penelope Cruz as much as I did in this film. In fact, I used to hate her (in the Tom Cruise era) and had an unflattering nickname for her. But her work with Almodóvar is unparalleled. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of one of his stars who didn’t turn in a career-making performance under his direction.
As always, Almodóvar’s other strength is in set design and framing. The way he works with eye-popping color and pattern in his mise-en-scene is really something to behold and I feel like I learn so much about filmmaking just from watching his films. In much the same way All About My Mother was a love letter to the architectural innovation of the city of Barcelona, Volver captures a drab and dull world in Technicolor, making it seem as though these hard-knock lives are maybe not as hopeless as they may first appear.
Almodóvar’s narratives resist quick and clear categorization or synopsizing. Volver begins first as a family melodrama, turns to Postman Always Rings Twice-level noir, and then lands softly somewhere in between. Every time you think you know what the spine of the story is going to be, Almodóvar turns in a new, unexpected direction that prevents him from working too deeply in trope.
His three previous films (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education) seem to all work together—not as a trilogy or sequence, but clearly as related work. Those three films are all deeply internal, personal, wrought with emotion, exploring ideas of personal connection. Volver samples from each of them, acting as a true “return” not only his earlier film upon which this is partially based, but on his body of work as a whole. Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz return from previous films in these new roles and it’s gratifying to watch them embody wholly new characters and remain wholly believable.
If you don’t know Almodóvar’s work, you must immediately stand up, run to your nearest video store, and rent some. My recommendations, in order:
All About My Mother
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Talk to Her
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!