To make a change from all the silent films I’d been watching because of the infamous 1001 Films to Guilt You Before You Die book, I thought I’d skip to the tail end of the book and work backwards for a bit. (It’s also a lot easier to get hold of films made a few years ago.) So Volver (Return or Coming Back) was the film right up the tail end, so that’s where I ended up.

This is directed by Pedro Almodóvar, the quite-famous Spanish director. That said, I’ve only seen one of his films before, called Talk To Her, and while I could admire the craft of that one, there were several sequences which were just a bit too much for me.

Volver is a bit more mainstream, though that said, it would be unusual to see this kind of film come out of the Hollywood system. It opens with a shot of a cemetery in La Mancha, a notoriously windy (and I mean windy) region of Spain, and the graveyard is full of women cleaning and polishing graves. These three themes (women, death and wind) pretty much form the basis of the entire film.

This is an ensemble cast of nearly entirely women. The two main characters are the independent Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and the much meeker Sole (Lola Dueñas), sisters living in Madrid – both of them struggling with the fact that the men in their life just aren’t any good. In Sole’s case, her husband deserted her a long time ago and, in Raimunda’s case, she has a husband – but he is an unemployed bum with a roving eye. As well as the contrast between these two women, the film constantly contrasts the two locations these women have inhabited – Madrid, where everything is modern, but where women feel isolated and lonely – and La Mancha, where the women band together with an incredible solidarity and look after one another. (This is exemplified by the secondary but important character of Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a friend of their mother’s who lives in La Mancha and “checks in” every day on how their elderly aunt is going.) While Raimunda and Sole haven’t had much luck with their love lives, they think fondly about their mother, who died in a fire three years before – in the arms of her husband.

Up until then, the story (which I confess I didn’t know a lot about – I don’t remember hearing much more than the title of this film when it was released) is rather conventional, but then two things suddenly happen which set things in motion: first, Raimunda’s husband dies under circumstances which leave her with tough choices to make and, secondly, Sole comes back from a funeral in La Mancha only to find her dead mother has stowed away in the boot of her car and wants to come and live with her.

I won’t say any more than that, but what unfolds is less a story and more an exploration of themes – women looking out for each other, loneliness, betrayal, death and its effect on people, secrets, similarities between past and present and a complete absence of any decent men on the scene.

This film rather successfully passes the Bechdel test, which I read about on my friend cafedave’s blog, which means simply that the film has to: a. feature two women, b. talking to one another c. not about men. When I first read about that test, I realised how little of that there is in modern film (certainly in mainstream Hollywood fare), so it was quite refreshing to watch something in a foreign language about a different culture featuring women. And certainly, the most astonishing revelation of the film is Penélope Cruz. In anything I’ve seen her in, she’s always come across as this kind of irritating character with a strong accent who’s only claim to fame was stealing Tom Cruise from Nicole Kidman. However, as the character of Raimunda, she absolutely glows on the screen.

I think what I found most disturbing, in the end, however, was what this film seemed to be saying about men. Now, I understand, the fact that men are all love rats in this film is just this story and not reality, but it certainly felt that way. I know that Almodóvar has said that this film is very much a homage to the women in his life when he was young. What is unspoken, in all of the reviews I’ve seen or any of the DVD interviews – is that if these are what the women were like that he grew up around – what does that say about the men that he knew when he was a boy?

4 out of 5 if you’re into arthouse cinema.

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