Volver (2006)

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

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Volver revolves around two sisters, Sole (Lola Dueñas) whose deceased mother has suddenly appeared from beyond the grave, and Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), whose daughter kills her stepfather in self-defense after he attempts to force himself on her.  In both cases the storylines do not end in plotted melodrama but rather something quieter and more poignant.

The story, in fact, has little to do with what you would think it would be about in the hands of another storyteller.  There is no ticking clock before the spirit of the mother evaporates back into nothingness, and there’s no detective cornering in on Raimunda.  Instead the mother seems to be as much flesh and blood as anyone else, and the stepfather is put to rest with a certain respect that most people wouldn’t give him.  Then that leaves room for the rest of the story to be told.

It’s about mothers, daughters and sisters.  There are aunts and grandmothers as well, but the story orbits those two sisters, the returned mother Irene (Carmen Maura) and Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo).  They are tough and kind, and they repair old wounds and forge new bonds.

It’s really quite something, so damn empathetic and sweet.  Certain family secrets are cleared up, and Irene will at last reveal herself to Raimunda, whom she believes doesn’t want to see her.  Her mistaken beliefs are not the precursor to some dramatic exchange, instead when they finally meet they have a heartfelt conversation about the past, misunderstandings and the subsequent hardened negativity they held onto.  Their dynamic has a lot in common with the mother and daughter in Almodovar’s Julieta.

Again, as with so many Almodovar films, it seems inexplicable that this all works.  It’s pulpy at the top, hooking you in with its two bewildering premises, but beyond that it’s a spiritual little exercise.  There is humor and pathos, including a remarkable scene in which Raimunda sings a song about regret while her mother tears up just out of sight.  Then it ends on another subtly affecting moment, not with the mother’s disappearance or any falling out but with just another kind gesture.

It’s a sweet film playing by rules we can only wish dictated our own existence.  To have the dead come back to life and take care of the living those soon to die, well it’s just endearing.  They are spiritual masseuses, or heavenly tour guides and chaperones, like the angels of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.

The people to whom they have returned are mired in their own struggles, some more horrific and some melodramatic, and to them they provide a comfort that likely only comes from having crossed that threshold into whatever it is that lies beyond.

And that Irene’s return is left unexplained and for the most part uncommented upon makes it all the better.  She is there, and everyone can see her, but no one much cares to ask where she’s been or what she’s seen.  In one amusing moment, after we learn that Irene in life could’ve been arrested for murder, she remarks that it’s a good thing everyone assumes she’s a ghost, so that they might not try to arrest her this time around.

Beyond that it’s left unremarked.  She’s just here and that’s that, her welcome return deemed not all that noteworthy, just as the women in the town treat life and death as a whole rather matter of factly.  The film opens with a series of people, mostly women, tending to the graves of their dearly departed as Raimunda calmly tells Paula that the men tend to die before the women here.

Everything is what it is, no matter how spectacular it might feel to us.  The characters here don’t resist or challenge what they see and experience, whether it’s magical realism or sexual assault.  Just as with Talk to Her, Almodovar finds a way to navigate things both inexplicable and disturbing with an odd sort of grace.

Up Next: Lone Survivor (2013), Jerichow (2008), Pain and Glory (2019)

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