Volver is a Pedro Almodóvar Spanish film starring Penelope Cruz, who absolutely must be one of the most beautiful women in movies by the way.
I like almost everything the critics liked about this movie, except I have problems with the tone. It’s a gutsy attempt to incorporate different genres—combining deep, disturbing incidents, with feel good domestic themes, a certain amount of humor based on the kind of quirky characters you might meet in an indie comedy, and an overall light, humane touch. I just don’t think Almodóvar fully pulls it off.
Early in the film, an attempted incestuous rape leads to a murder, which leaves the mother and daughter needing to dispose of the body. There is some degree of lightness up to that point, kind of a sense that this is developing into a character-driven dramedy, but that series of incidents certainly seems to take things into a much darker, heavier area.
Except the movie almost immediately reverts back to what it had been, with another, lighter, overlapping storyline given as much or actually more attention. When it does return to the murder subplot, the disposal of the body is handled in a semi-comic, certainly unrealistic, way.
I felt myself wanting the film to stick with the crime material and develop that story in a serious way that took me where I was primed to go emotionally. Not that it ever treats it as out-and-out farce, like the violence in a movie like Eating Raoul, but heck, that might have been better. I would have preferred it go in one direction or the other, rather than try to skate along this edge between realistic, devastating domestic violence (attempted rape of a 14 year old, and murder in self-defense) and quirky comedy.
Not a complete failure in that respect, but the tone just didn’t sit well with me.
The other main storyline has to do with the stunning return (“volver” means “to return”) of Penelope Cruz’s mother. Rather than tell about the specifics of that, which would likely give away too much of the movie, what I’ll say is that that storyline makes a very nice recovery. At first I was disappointed at where it looked like it was going, but it develops in a way that undoes what had had me rolling my eyes.
It’s a rope-a-dope kind of thing—you think the plot’s in trouble (relative to my tastes anyway), then it turns out that was all a ruse, things are not as they seem, and it was never in trouble at all.
Kind of the reverse of when you think you’ve got yourself a good story, and they pull the lame “it was all a dream” twist to wipe it away.
This part about the mother’s return still has the disadvantage that I was wanting to spend more time with the incest/murder stuff—at least if it were going to be taken seriously—but in itself it is by no means a bomb, and in fact is fairly good.
What lifts Volver perhaps above what I’ve said about the content and tone so far, is that everything about it is very professional. It does all the little things well. It’s one of those movies where you know you’re watching the work of a filmmaker, and crew, that really know their stuff.
Cruz is not just terrific to look at, but gives a solid, engaging performance from start to finish. And that’s pretty much true of all the acting in the movie. The characters are consistently interesting and likable. The pacing, the dialogue, the cinematography are top notch—it’s just a pleasant film to watch.
I’ll also note that Almodóvar plays some games with the camera that I suspect would be harder to get away with if he weren’t a big shot foreign director. Cruz seems to have only low cut tops in her wardrobe, and is consistently shot to show her at her best advantage. Somehow it all seems very smooth and natural and not at all lecherous, as if it were pure chance that when she bends over, the camera just happens to be overhead, trained close up on her above the waist. Or when she and her sister are leaning into the trunk of her car in tight pants, the camera happens to be just above ground level, shooting them from behind.
At times there’s an erotic feel to the movie, in spite of the fact that really it’s about the relationships of mothers and daughters and sisters, with no sex, no love scenes, no romance (well, minimal flirting, that isn’t developed), and no nudity. (Ironically—and again, I would think in another movie this would raise a lot more eyebrows—the only semi-nudity is about a half second of the 14 year old girl topless.)
The movie fails to treat certain aspects of its subject matter with the gravity that it arguably could have and should have, yet in a different way, while it’s having some fun, and presenting some of its characters in a light manner, and incorporating some playful plot twists, it’s subtly doing what it needs to do to bring you into these people’s lives and tell you some things about relationships and how people cope with pain, disappointment, and loss. By the time it ties things together at the end, it’s proven to be more serious than it might have seemed much of the way.
As a matter of personal preference, there are elements of Volver that worked for me and elements that didn’t. But I’d say I have a favorable feeling for this movie overall that exceeds the sum of its parts. If I step back and try to assess it more objectively, I believe I’d have to rate it even higher just in terms of how skillful a piece of filmmaking it is.