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What does it mean when we say that a director makes personal films? It probably means we are talking about someone like Pedro Almodóvar, who has a distinct, immediately recognizable style, and who works in a familiar framework with characters who – from film to film – belong in the same universe. It means that we are talking about a director who seems to be making films that are an extension of his personality. In that way, Almodóvar surely makes personal films.
A personal note, then: I’ve always felt very distant from Almodóvar and thought his ever-expanding throng of unreserved admirers was undeserved. I have been perplexed by the long lines and rave reviews that greet a new Almodóvar picture. But I am more interested in appreciating this movie than in discussing its faults, because my experience with Volver has led me to believe that the Almodóvarians are onto something. I’d rather point to qualities of this movie as a way of understanding what I may have been missing than detract on a point that I’m sure isn’t worth making to his audience, who can manage such a strong emotional investment in fictional characters. If Almodóvar’s throng of admirers has been having similar experiences with his other characters to the one I had with Raimunda, the protagonist of Volver, it is no wonder that they flock to each of his pictures. I am fascinated and touched by the way Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz unfold the personality – or, I am pressed to say, the soul – of Raimunda. Cruz melds with her working class character, transforming the powerful presence that the actress possesses as a cross-Atlantic superstar into the distinguished air that Raimunda carries with fierce dignity.
A quick examination of the opening scenes of Volver will provide the seed of explanation for what’s worth celebrating in the film. Praise for the opening’s qualities is also praise for the film as a whole, and – generally speaking, I suppose – for Almodóvar’s oeuvre.
The beginning of Volver makes the typical narrative rounds, stopping by all the key locations and introducing all the themes that will be vital to the story. The deliberate drive through the film’s territory is not expository and tedious, but a total joyride. We meet Raimunda, her daughter Irene, and her sister Sole: three key characters introduced, check. They are polishing a grave: morbid hang-ups of characters, check. They leave the cemetery as we learn that the grave Raimunda and Sole were polishing was their mother’s: dead mom, check. Afterwards, they visit their aunt Paula who seems senile when she says their dead mother has been looking after her: crazy character foreshadowing the kooky fashions of the forthcoming narrative, check. After that, they stop by the aunt’s neighbor’s house, at which point we can check off the character who will explain the supernatural aspects of the plot. Already, we have established the workings of the plot that will follow.
And yet the technique of this procession of events is less an aggressive act of transparency than the achievement of an accomplished aesthetic of clarity. Almodóvar rounds each curve with deft handling, carried along by graceful camera movement and his sharp sense of how to shoot expository dialogue, always keeping some character or object of interest out of the shot, giving the camera places to move and charging the frame with flickers of energy just out of sight. As the characters are introduced, the close-to-kitsch cutesiness of reaction shots and pleasant hamming of some of the actors reminds us this is indeed an Almodóvar film (as does every other element), a personal work, which is why he can maintain an effective hold on the stylized performances throughout the film. And it is in this opening cruise that Raimunda emerges as a no-nonsense mom, a sassy sister with sibling superiority, and a thoughtful woman who devotes her Sundays to making all the right stops.
As the opening winds down and night falls on the film, the last item on the checklist comes into view: Raimunda goes home. This is where the aforementioned soul-unfolding starts to go down. She lives in anonymous low income blandness, with a beer-drunk husband who barely greets her. The regal air that Raimunda was allowed without qualification before we went home with her is shot through with the disappointments of her domestic situation, and therefore her life. It’s a shattering scene, all the more so for Almodóvar’s approach: he shoots the marital argument that Raimunda must lower herself to with a casual full shot. He’s not subjecting her to a suddenly indifferent camera, but illustrating (and with remarkable subtlety) how his character is caught amongst clutter that contains her character rather than expresses it. Before she hits the sack, Almodóvar hits back on her behalf, inserting a dishwashing shot that features her supple cleavage (both motherly and seductive) as she sponges off a prominently-sized knife. Her rapid movements with the threatening object make her seem dangerous in this moment, and that knife will undoubtedly return. (Ahem, first part of recurring image: check).
Raimunda will spend the rest of Volver trying to regain that dignity we were allowed to glimpse in the opening scenes. A body count with a tally of two soon boomerangs back from the cemetery scene, and the plot gets underway. The real complexity of Raimunda comes into fuller and fuller view, and it’s kaleidoscopic as it transpires. She covers up a murder, albeit a justified one, and takes over a defunct restaurant without authorization from its off-site owner. She struggles with her precocious daughter, who she doesn’t realize she might be losing to her sister. Her appealing traits blend with her faults: her attractive strength is also her domineering assuredness, which verges on obliviousness and leads to callousness. I might love Raimunda, and digesting the frustrating complications of her character is almost as damnable a duty as the tangled task of letting a real loved one be a complete person, not just the version you’d like to wake up with.
We watch Raimunda go to the toilet. We learn about her past cold-shouldering of her mother and witness her repeat the behavior with her sister. Almodóvar is daring us to wonder whether Raimunda deserves to win back the regal demeanor she radiated when we first met her, before the domestic scene. (It’s worth noting that he avoids the house after it’s served its purpose.) He manages a delicate interaction with both Raimunda and his audience, simultaneously drawing them towards each other. Revelations about her character near the end might drag (and empty the compositions of their initial intrigue, as they go down appropriately enough against the black of night), but it is important to Almodóvar, in this personal picture, to make clear how much love can come from deep pain.
Almodóvar’s portrait takes place via filmic means – by letting his audience observe the external ways in which a character navigates a situation, utilizing the performances around her as much as Cruz’s to execute this incisive character study. He manages to relay an intimate revelation amidst a rambunctious plot that includes a restaurant takeover, a corpse cover-up, a film crew, and a Spanish ghost posing as a Russian hairdresser. This maneuvering displays his virtuosity. That the portrait is so plaintive, and that the passion of the filmmaking comes from such empathetic feelings for so problematic a person is testament to his compassionate cinema and tender artistry—the rapturous extension of a director who has made a lovely and personal film.