Feb 11 2010

Volver

As someone who tries to keep up on important filmmakers, both within my wheelhouse and outside it, I’d read quite a bit about Pedro Almodóvar.  Unfortunately, since my viewing of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in college was cancelled, I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing one of his films.  That changed this week, when I finally got the chance to sit down and watch Volver on beautiful blu-ray.  This is a film that’s been sitting in my queue for ages, so the big question is: was it worth the wait?  And should I have pushed it up sooner?

Volver, for those unaware, and I’m sure there are many, is the Spanish film from 2006 that got Penélope Cruz her first Oscar nomination.  It’s one of those films that to explain the plot too heavily can hurt some of the surprise, so I’ll try and be brief.  Volver is first and foremost a story about multiple generations of family, particularly woman, and how they relate to each other and deal with their problems.  The central characters are Penelope Cruz’s Raimunda, her teenage daughter Paula, and her sister Sole.  There’s a slight supernatural/mysterious element thrown into the mix as well because after the death of Raimunda and Sole’s aunt, their dead mother begins “appearing” to Sole.

The supernatural aspect is definitely more of a means to an end than the actual plot, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal taste.  In this case, with the skills of the director, I think it was the better choice to make it more of a side-plot.  Almost in tradition with Spanish soap operas, the film often leans heavily in a melodramatic fashion.  But Almodóvar manages to keep the execution skillful and walks the line to where this would become cheesy or over the top skillfully.  While doing this, he manages to sprinkle much of the film with Spanish cultural traditions and superstitions and, even more importantly, relate and interconnect these aspects with the drama and personality of the characters.  The way the web of secrets contained within the plot entangles and effects each of the other facts and mysteries is also very intriguing, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the revelations of the film, including a rather shocking inciting incident and multiple reveals towards the end.

If there’s any fault to be had with the structure of the film, it’s the pacing.  The movie, despite it’s big events (as compared with a normal family’s reality) can drag from time to time.  And it seems some plotlines move really quickly and get exhausted and go nowhere, forcing new ones to be inserted arbitrarily.  Balancing all the plotlines so that they feel more simultaneous and less like they’re taking turns, one after the other, would have made this a better film I think.  As with any story, there are subplots that you personally are drawn to more than others.  Saying that I’d prefer that one take more focus and be spread throughout the film better is somewhat futile, because I wouldn’t necessarily want to cut any of the other plots.  Trimming air from the film doesn’t necessarily seem like it would improve things either, you never know how that type of thing will affect the tone and feel of a film.

I really like the way that all the mysteries of the films are resolved, the growth of the characters feels organic, and less like an arbitrary change or “arc.”  Instead we’re treated to logical actions by each of the characters, but ones that put them in a place that’s different than where they started the film in a very satisfying way.  As apparently with a lot of films, there’s a lot of darkness to trudge through here, but the way that the characters attack these things with their chins held high is endearing and gives quite a bit of hope.  No, they don’t always take their problems head on, or share them out in the open, and to some extent that is their downfall for much of the film, but by the end they see a much healthier way of approaching family and life.

The thing that drew me to this film most, though, was the sheer vibrancy of the images.  This is a colorful movie.  With really bright, warm tones everywhere.  The reds, oranges, and yellows look spectacular here, and they create a world that feels very different than the one I live in.  Alongside the culture and the habits of the characters, you get a feeling of very raw passion.  These colors, present in Cruz’s wardrobe, really set off against the darker tones in her hair and makeup beautifully, and tell you much about her character even with a single frame.  Each shot is beautifully composed and meticulously put together as well, giving an incredible amount of visual interest to a film that is often primarily talking heads.  And there a couple money shots here, one being an extreme close-up of a paper towel, no less, that are truly jaw dropping.

Finally, since it’s what the Film Academy found most noteworthy about the film, it’s essential that I discuss Penélope Cruz’s performance.  Cruz brings all the passion that you would expect given the characters that she’s generally known for playing, but there’s also an inner turmoil that she subtly exudes almost between the frames.  She saves her big emotional moments for the right times, and doesn’t overplay even those.  But I was actually even more impressed with the actress who plays her mother, Carmen Maura.  She managed to bring some humor and an almost adorable nature to a role that still carried some heavy dramatic gravity.  A lot of credit goes to Almodóvar himself though, because I think what’s really magical about the film is the relationships between all the women in the film.  Each and every relationship and interaction has something different to offer.

This film isn’t for everyone.  Those with no patience for subtitles or slower films will find this one no different.  Similarly, if familial conflict isn’t your bag, you’re not going to appreciate much of what this has to offer.  But, if a down-to-earth family drama is something you do appreciate, this film has a lot to offer, and it’s got a healthy dose of quirk and culture to boot.  I’d definitely recommend this to the more filmically inclined.

3 Responses to “Volver”

  • anton Says:

    I think the moment that stood out for me most was during that HUGE reveal. There are many cinematic ways to construct that scene, but Almodovar chose the simplest and most honest option. It’s proof that performance and character emotion is what matters most to him as a director.

    You say that it’s not for everyone, but I’d be willing to say it’s not even for most. I appreciate Almodovar as a craftsman, but I have to be in the right mood for him.

  • James Goux Says:

    @Anton Agreed about the construction of his scenes during reveals. The inciting incident is particularly well put together, is that what you were referring to? And when you say he’s not even for MOST, I’d say that was kind of what I was trying to get at, but I don’t want to put anyone off too much if they’re willing to go out on a limb and try something new.

  • Melanie Says:

    Sounds great. Moving it to the top of my list.

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