Care Bearers

Salt Lake City Weekly | January 15, 2007
Early in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest affectionate provocation Volver, a man is stabbed to death. By his 14-year-old daughter. Because he tried to sexually assault her. And we never actually see any of it.

Oh, we hear about it, as the distraught young Paula (Yohana Cobo) describes to her mother, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), the terrible events. The swelling, dramatic string music of a daytime soap opera accompanies Paula’s tearful confession as she relates the lurid details—yet despite the high melodrama of the circumstances, the killing itself isn’t consequential enough to show on screen. What matters is what follows: Raimunda dutifully applying paper towels and mop to clean up the crime scene, and Raimunda and Paula carrying the body to the place where it can be hidden.

Almodóvar has long been a rival to George Cukor as the all-time champion among men-directing-women, but Volver may be his most loving paean yet to female perseverance. Despite featuring the kind of over-the-top plot elements that have characterized his work for 20 years—sex is never simple in the world of Almodóvar—Volver is no more about murder, incest and ghosts than Talk to Her was about stalking or molesting a comatose woman. It’s a celebration of women watching out for each other, and a study of the consequences when one woman fails to do so.

The film’s first image captures the degree to which that kind of care is extended: Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) have returned from Madrid to the small town where they grew up for an annual cleaning of their parents’ grave. Mom and Dad died in a mysterious fire three years earlier, yet their aging, ailing aunt Tía Paula (Chus Lampreave) insists that her sister is still with her. The sisters chalk it up to senility—until mom Irene (Carmen Maura) appears to Sole as well, and insists that she has unfinished business in this world.

These women all have plenty of business of their own to take care of without worrying about spirits returning from the dead—and nearly all of that business involves looking out for others. Raimunda and Sole’s childhood friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) has taken it upon herself to keep an eye on Tía Paula in the absence of any other family members; Raimunda labors at doing laundry and scrubbing floors even when they’re not her own, and covered with her husband’s blood.

Yet even more than individual acts of caring, Volver portrays with warmth and keen insight a community of women committed to supporting one another in any time of trouble. When Raimunda impulsively agrees to cater lunch for a film crew, she turns to neighbors who supply her with the ingredients she needs for the meal. When there’s a death, it is the women who gather to offer comfort to the mourners. Even a suspicious jaunt in the middle of the night isn’t too much to ask of a fellow woman, as a neighborhood prostitute (Isabel Díaz) agrees to help Raimunda dispose of … something. The principal sin in this world—the one for which Irene must atone—is failing in that duty to be there for another woman in need.

This perspective might be viewed as radically reactionary—a big round of applause only for ladies who stick to the tasks of cooking, cleaning and nurturing—were it not for the characteristic love Almodóvar pours out onto his characters. Cruz, Maura, Dueñas and the entire cast deliver performances filled with the conviction that nothing is more noble than being there for those who need you. His sunny direction of even grim events keeps Volver focused on generosity of spirit—his characters’, as well as his own.

It is, perhaps, more than a little unfortunate that men in Volver seem to exist as little more than impediments to women’s happiness; Raimunda’s husband is slimy enough that he masturbates in the bed next to her when she rebuffs his amorous advances. Yet even then, Almodóvar’s dark sense of humor deflects the misanthropic sensibility. When someone comes to the door during Raimunda’s attempts to clean up her husband’s body, and spies some flecks of blood on her, she quickly explains it with an offhanded, “Women’s troubles”—a great double-entendre equating men with menstruation as burdens of the gender. It’s women’s lot, Volver explains, to deal with the messier aspects of life—but somehow they can manage by dealing with those things together.


***1/2 (three and a half out of four stars)

Starring: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas.

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Rated R.

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