Sunday, February 18, 2007
It's a belated Film Notes this week, but I did have the opportunity to see Volver on Thursday night. Typical of Almodovar, the specifics of the plot defy a linear description, but, once again, his common preoccupations are to the fore: the hidden, perverse secrets of families, the pragmatism and survival skills of women in a male dominated society and the inability of people to communicate with the ones they love.
Almodovar has described the film as being precisely about death . . . More than about death itself, the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born. It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.
Some reviews of the movie have described Volver as a lesser effort than recent successes like All About My Mother and Talk to Her, and, perhaps, this is true, but only because these earlier films were so compelling. In this one, the plot is centered around two sisters, Penelope Cruz as Raimunda and Lola Duenas as Sole. At the beginning, we observe them cleaning the gravestones of their parents, a local custom, and, shortly thereafter, at the home of their elderly aunt. Suspicions arise that their mother (Almodovar veteran Carmen Maura) has spiritually returned to care for her.
To say more would spoil the gentle delights of this movie. But there is an old cinema term, mise en scene. No one agrees precisely about what it means, but this will have to do: The representation of space affects the reading of a film. Depth, proximity, size and proportions of the places and objects in a film can be manipulated through camera placement and lenses, lighting, decor, effectively determining mood or relationships between elements in the diegetic world.
As I watched the first 45 minutes of Volver, I thought that there are few directors and film crews that have developed the mastery that Almodovar and his team display here. It is a consistent thread that runs through all of his recent films. They create a space, a mood whereby the actors can present naturalistic, subtle performances. There is the appearance of an effortlessness, an ease to the unfolding of the narrative, which is usually the result of hard work and experience. Even the most mundane scene in an Almodovar film (or is it, especially the most mundane scene?) is the closest thing to a convincing representation of the emotional and physical sense of our times.
Here, as in All About My Mother, one of the beneficiaries is Penelope Cruz, and the comparison of her roles in these two movies reveals that she can, in fact, act and act well. In All About My Mother, Cruz successfully conveyed the naivete of a nun that fell in love with a transsexual, and subsequently matured, while, here, she is convincing as a tough as nails woman who saves herself and her daughter, while salvaging her relationships with her sister and mother. Hollywood, it seems, never figured out what to do with her.
There is also an interesting social dimension to this film. In the past, Almodovar has attributed the presence of dysfunctional families, sexual perversity and the inability of people to honestly communicate as manifestations of the personal repression of the Franco era. Here, the family secrets, the personal tragedies, transpired after Franco's death. In other words, he has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, associated them with the Republic. The political structure may have changed, but the emotional rhythms, disruptions and deceptions of everyday life, deeply ingrained in Spanish life (or is it all of our lives?) are not transformed so readily.