Monday, October 10, 2011

Pedro Almodóvar | Volver

by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (writer and director) Volver / 2007

 I interpret the title of Pedro Almodóvar’s 2007 film not simply as a “coming back,” but as a return, a revolving, a kind of “revolution,” both in the sense of the planet’s trip around the sun and a change or turning in social and political events.

      Oddly enough the movie begins with an image of no change or, perhaps, a change one might describe as the ultimate one, death. For seemingly all the citizens of the small Spanish village in La Mancha, where Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) have grown up, are at the graveyard, cleaning the headstones and replanting flowers nearby. The daughters and Raimunda’s child, Paula, have returned to this village to refurbish their mother and father’s grave, both of whom have died in a fire. The sight of all these devoted relatives polishing up the graves of their loved ones in the midst of the insistent winds of a mistral, is, as the camera pans over the cemetery grounds, one of the most absurd of Almodóvar’s images.  As the sisters prepare to leave, they encounter a neighbor, Augustina, who explains she has come to polish her own headstone—it is a comforting act, she explains—which Raimunda tells her daughter is customary behavior in this strange town.

      As they prepare to leave they briefly visit their aunt. The aunt is nearly blind and hardly able to remember Sole, yet the house remains in order. The aunt survives, she explains, with the help of their mother Irene (the marvelous Carmen Maura), whom the townspeople, according to Augustina, claim has reappeared as a ghost. It is hard not to believe in this ghostly presence when Sole herself sees the image momentarily as she uses the bathroom and when the women are presented upon their leaving with canisters of prepared food, each with their name written upon it.

      The magical world of village life is countered by the stark poverty of the Madrid suburbs where Raimunda and Sole now live. It is a world of poor migrant workers and desperate women such as Raimunda’s Dominican neighbor, Regina, who works as a prostitute. As Raimunda returns home, she discovers her husband, Paco, drunk and, he soon reports, out of work. The next day she returns home from her job to discover her daughter waiting for her at the bus. Paula, it is clear, is extremely distressed, and as they reach the apartment, the mother discovers Paco dead in a pool of blood upon the kitchen floor. He has tried to rape Paula, and in her attempt to protect herself she has grabbed a knife to threaten him. Ignoring her threat he “jumped” her and she, in reaction, stabbed him to death.

      Given the horrific scene and the acts behind it, Raimunda has little choice; she demands that Paula, if ever asked, must say that she had nothing to do with the murder, that she is to insist that her mother has committed the act. Cleaning up the blood, Raimunda methodically wraps the body, depositing it in the freezer of a small closed-down restaurant next door which she has been asked to watch while its owner is away.

       Almodóvar’s films are the closest thing we have today to the boulevard farces of the late 19th and 20th century French theater, and, in the manner of such topsy turvy theater, no sooner has Raimunda delivered her husband’s body to the freezer than she receives a call that her aunt has died; she is expected to return to the small country village. Unable to do so, she inexplicably sends the more superstitious Sole to the funeral in her stead.

      Meanwhile, a young man, discovering Raimunda in the restaurant, tells her he represents a film company that would like to rent out the restaurant for cast meals for the period of their filming in the area, a request the enterprising young woman perceives as a new source for much needed money. Borrowing special dishes and provisions from her friends, Raimunda scraps together an excellent dinner, paying back her friends out of her profits from the night before. Before long, she has turned the empty restaurant into a money-making business, transforming her desolate neighborhood into a temporary center of culture and pleasure.

      With the help of her Dominican neighbor, whom she pays as any man might by the hour, Raimunda trucks the freezer to a spot by the river—her husband’s favorite spot—where she buries Paco within the freezer as a kind of outrageous coffin. How very different from the film’s first scene is her act of quickly cutting a headstone into the bark of a nearby tree.

The plot quickens as Augustina calls, reporting that she is in a Madrid hospital, dying of cancer. Sole meanwhile has returned from the funeral to find her ghostly mother has caught a ride back to Madrid in the trunk of her car. For a while, we are convinced, as in the fabulous stories of the South American fabulists, that Irene is truly a ghost, but as she begins to intrude into her daughter’s life, working as a Russian assistant in Sole’s illegal (but quite popular) hair salon, we begin to perceive that this woman is too hilariously corporeal to be a simple specter.

      Sent to her aunt’s while Raimunda visits Augustina and prepares a final cast dinner, Paula discovers her grandmother hiding under her bed, and the two quickly bond. Why has Raimunda been so unforgiving of her mother, Irene asks?

      Augustina also has a question to ask of Raimunda: what can she tell her of the whereabouts of Augustina’s missing mother? We soon suspect the answer to that and many other of the film’s mysteries when Augustina reveals her mother has disappeared on the very day that Raimunda’s father and mother burned to death in a country cabin.

       As Raimunda eventually discovers the existence of Irene (she smells the farts of the old woman in Sole’s apartment) we slowly come to understand the secret histories of their past: that Augustina’s mother and Raimunda’s father had long had an affair, that Raimunda herself had been raped by her father and, accordingly, been sent to her aunt’s house for protection, and that Irene (Raimunda’s mother) set fire to the cabin, killing her husband and his lover.

      Now we comprehend the numerous turns or revolutions of this story. Paula is not only Raimunda’s daughter, but her sister, and her mother Irene’s act is not only one of jealousy but of revenge. As the women return to the small village to close down their aunt’s house, Irene chooses to “pay for her own crimes,” this time by living with Augustina, again as a ghost, caring for her until Augustina’s death.

     The two sisters and Paula will stay on in the village, perhaps to care for their own mother, ghosts of their own pasts, in their mother's last hours. Generation after generation of these women, apparently, seem unable to escape the destructive sexuality of their men and the consequences of their reactions to it. And in that sense, they are all trapped. It is, after all, a culture grounded in death. Yet in their caring for each other another kind of revolution may take place, creating a new world of deeper understanding and love among the grieving survivors.*

It may be interesting to compare Raimunda’s world, in which these strong women take things into their own hands, with the world of the female characters in Polanski’s Chinatown—which also presents us with a daughter who is also her mother’s sister—in which they remain in thrall to the several evil male forces.

New York, January 18, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (April 2008).
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (April 2008).

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