Almodóvar returns in style, but forgets substance

By Sara Raftery

Penélope Cruz wears too much makeup. This is a scientific fact. But it’s okay; Too much makeup goes great with cleavage you can land a plane in. Those are the most cogent thoughts I could put together after watching Volver, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest outing starring the lovely Ms. Cruz. It’s not that the brilliance of Volver has robbed me of speech; rather, I don’t quite know what to say about a film that is fundamentally flawed on the emotional, structural, and sensory levels.

At least on that last level, Almodóvar gets something right. The film, set in Madrid and the Spanish countryside, is vibrant, colorful, and elegantly captured by the engaging cinematography of José Luis Alcaine. The actresses—the cast is almost uniformly female—are lovely to behold. However, five deep-focus shots of a car driving through a field of windmills later, the film’s visual beauty has worn thin, and the audience is left with threads of overblown plot held together by the valiant efforts of a strong and competent cast.

Penélope Cruz is trying. She really is. And she’s not miscast, she’s simply too attractive to play a harried housewife. In a cast of earthly beauties, her celestial beauty stands out awkwardly. Cruz’s talent—which has never been as apparent in her English roles—is enough to make her believable as Raimunda, the wife of a derelict and the mother of Paula (Yohana Cobo), a 14-year-old whose mature physicality betrays no sign of her young age.

The film opens with a horrific tragedy, which Almodóvar seems to prefer to play for laughs. Disconcerting as that is, it quickly fades into memory as the main plot of the film is presented: Raimunda’s aunt Paula has died, and the body has barely cooled before Raimunda and her sister, Soledad (Lola Dueñas), find themselves caught up in the drama of their old village. Their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), is said to have returned from the dead to watch over her sister, and one of their neighbors (Blanca Portillo), whose mother is missing, wants answers from the ghost. Raimunda is skeptical, Soledad is haunted, and Paula, Raimunda’s daughter, is a cipher.

It’s worth spending a moment considering Paula. As one of the principal players in the film’s opening, the audience could be forgiven for thinking her progress and relationships would be featured prominently. However, she shows no ill effects from her experience, throwing herself into Raimunda’s illicit catering business with only one small hiccup in her enthusiasm. “Volver” means “to return,” and, in a sense, every theme in the story returns to Paula—her history, her future, her beauty, even her name. However, her personality and experiences are left out. She serves as a walking metaphor and plot device rather than a fully fleshed-out character.

This is characteristic of much of the film. The majority of its various plot threads are never explored beyond the superficial level, leaving the viewer confused as to their purpose. Utilizing metaphor is an important directorial skill, but when that extends to metaphorical plots, a director may be overdoing it. Events fade in, leave an impression, and fade out, their significance unexplored. It could be argued that, despite its discontinuities and poor resolutions, the film’s emotional punch outweighs its flaws. There is, in fact, much to feel and experience vicariously here. Some of it is even well executed. However, seen through the lens of a poorly constructed plot, unexplored subplots, and indistinct characters, the emotional weight of the film’s many issues (incest! death! deception!) gets lost. The melodrama of the climax evokes little genuine emotion and a lot of irritation and disgust.

Volver isn’t a total failure. As an aesthetic piece, it succeeds. While it certainly doesn’t showcase any of its actresses (with the possible exception of Maura, whose performance is heartfelt and tender), it gives them all space in which to interpret their roles with delicacy. Yet, you need more than beautiful, sad women to make a brilliant film. They must be doing something meaningful to make their beauty and sadness worth watching. It is in its attempt to create a viable narrative for these women that Volver comes crashing down.