Sunday 4 December 2016

Movie Review: Volver (2006)

A story about working class women and their generations-spanning struggles to clean up after their men, Volver is a cleverly constructed drama with plenty of earthy humour.

In a working class Madrid suburb, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is grinding out a living to raise her 14 year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). The family finances get worse when Raimunda's partner Paco loses his job. Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) are orphans after their mother Irene and their father died in a fire a few years prior. The sisters travel to their ancestral village to visit elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and find her in the late stages of dementia babbling as if her sister Irene was still around. The village is rife with rumours that the ghost of Irene is indeed hovering. Aunt Paula's neighbour Augustina (Blanca Portillo) keeps an eye on the old lady, but Augustina has troubles of her own: her mother has disappeared and not been seen for years.

Tragedy strikes when Paco attempts to rape Raimunda's daughter Paula, claiming that he is not her father. The young girl fights back and stabs Paco to death. Raimunda conceals the body in the freezer of a nearby closed-for-business restaurant. When an unexpected opportunity arises for Raimunda to operate the restaurant and make some money, things appear to be looking up despite the body stuffed in the freezer. But then back in the village Aunt Paula finally expires, and an unlikely visitor moves in with Sole.

Directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, Volver ("to go back" in Spanish) tap dances on the edge where black comedy meets the drama of life. The film is sneaky funny, creating situations that should be more tragedy than comedy but nevertheless trigger reminders that life can be absurd in any context. And Volver is almost exclusively about the rollercoaster of life as experienced by women, three generations bracketed by name from the young Paula to her elderly great Aunt Paula.

The theme of women as the guardians of society is the film's most powerful current. The story starts with women cleaning the graveyards of their family members, and the comment that around these parts, women outlive men. And indeed, the male characters are mainly notable by their absence: the restaurant owner takes off early; Raimunda's father is a dead presence best not discussed; and the useless Paco meets a bloody end.

It is left to the women to hold together society's threads, and this they do with a startling matter of factness. Both the ghost of Irene and Augustina look after Aunt Paula. Raimunda looks after her daughter Paula and the restaurant. Paula looks after herself. Both Raimunda and Sole, who runs an illegal salon, do what is needed to survive and carry on, well outside the confines of the law. Almodóvar squarely hits the target of his women-as-society's-cleansing-agents thesis: with Paco's lifeless bloody bleeding in the middle of Raimunda's kitchen, she expertly soaks up his blood with a domestic mop and bucket.

Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, Lola Dueñas as Sole, Blanca Portillo as Augustina, Carmen Maura as Irene and Yohana Cobo as the younger Paula bring the women to life, and they deliver stellar performances filled with the clear-eyed determination of blue collar pragmatism. But as hard as she tries to convey a working class ethos, Cruz's lusciously glamorous looks can't help but undermine her credentials as a woman mired near the poverty line.

As Almodóvar unspools his story, the ghosts of the past begins to find an echo in the present, with Raimunda not really surprised to find herself in the middle of recurring tragic comedies involving revenge, death and retribution. Even bad men need to find peace either through life or death, and of course it will be the watchful women, ghosts or not, who will go back as necessary to help them find a final resting place -- and then keep it clean.

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