Life and death in La Mancha
Review of Almodóvar’s Volver by Penny Cole
The opening scene of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (Return) shows groups of women of all ages cleaning and polishing gravestones in a vast cemetery, in a high wind. It is a high-octane start to a film that never flags as it explores the drama and humour of the lives of a group of women who clasp and kiss each other over and over, for they are the mainstays of each other’s lives.
It is not surprising that the jury at the Cannes film festival awarded the Best Actress prize to them collectively – impossible to single out a best performance by this amazing group of live wires. Two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas) and Raimunda's daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) have returned to their native village on this special day to tend the grave of their parents who died in each others arms in a fire.
Visiting their remaining aunt they are surprised to learn of a general view in the village that their dead mother is in fact looking after the aunt. The mother appears to Sole after her aunt’s funeral. She is played by Carmen Maura, famous as Almodóvar’s Woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown and the “return” of the title is also about the renewal of their collaboration.
Two linked stories of abuse and women’s ways of dealing with it unfold, with a murder and its aftermath, an affair and the return of a ghost to tackle the problems of the past. And throughout it all, the kindness and solidarity of women is what holds lives together. The story is funny, tragic and unsentimental. As always in Almodóvar films, food has a significant role. While hiding a body in the freezer, Raimunda even manages to take over and re-open a restaurant.
Almodóvar says of the story that "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”. Volver also uses the ghostly presence of the mother brilliantly to illustrate the growing differences between town and country in Spain, where Catholic superstition is giving way to a more practical, secular outlook. The film celebrates the collective strength of women in a colourful, passionate and brave fashion and is bound to win Almodóvar new fans.