Chief Justice Michael Stailey finally realizes why his sister enjoyed living in Spain. He's already planning his next vacation and hopes Penélope Cruz will be available to play tour guide.
Our review of Volver, published April 3rd, 2007, is also available.
After a brief sojourn to the darker side of the male psyche with Bad Education, legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar returns to subject matter and characters he knows best—the beautifully complex lives of vibrant women.
Facts of the Case
In the small village of Alcanfor de las Infantas, no one can escape the effects of the East Wind. Many believe it makes people loco. Raimunda (Penélope Cruz, Bandidas) and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas, The Sea Inside) certainly won't argue. A brief visit to their hometown sets off a chain of events that will reveal the truth about their mother's death, challenge their core beliefs, redefine the meaning of family, and change their lives forever.
Almodóvar is a genius. There are few filmmakers who can weave such an intricate fabric of reality, transcend language and culture, and brilliantly capture the power of universal truths in the face of desperation and absurdity. Volver is not at all what you would expect. On the surface, it would appear another character study of women living complex lives. But beneath that seemingly banal facade is a world rich with colorful characters making unconscionable choices to protect the ones they love.
Breaking the film down into theatrical beats, Act One is a taut thriller, rich with Hitchcockian tension, inspired visuals, intense emotion, and overwhelming guilt. Sins of the past return to haunt Raimunda, who does everything in her power to protect Paula (Yohana Cobo, The Dancer Upstairs) her only daughter. You see, each of us are expected to walk the straight and narrow in life, armed with the capability of giving unconditional love and committing unspeakable evil. Almodóvar takes us on side trips to each, without ever passing judgement on either.
Act Two is a lighthearted supernatural comedy, in which we come to know the characters who inhabit the village in which Raimunda and Sole grew up, as well as the poor Madrid neighborhood in which they now live. You have Augustina (Blanca Portillo, Between Your Legs), a childhood friend and proud pot smoker who still lives across the street from their ailing Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave, Belle Epoque); Regina (Isabel Díaz, Apocalypto), the illegal Cuban immigrant and a one woman red light district who makes a mean Mojito; Inés (Nieves Sanz Escobar) the excitable and indulgent middle aged mom who wants nothing more than a little excitement in her life; and a bevy of clients Sole tends to in her illegal home hair salon.
And Act Three is a superb homage to Italian Neorealism; a relationship drama where family—in all its many forms—always comes first, and to move forward in life we must own up to and accept the choices we've made. The underlying message is that despite all the trials and tribulations we go through, we're still okay.
If you haven't already noticed, I'm trying extremely hard not to reveal too much of the plot. There are several turning points and one gut punch that make Volver a film you must experience to appreciate. Even the most astute cinematic analysis won't do this Almodóvar adventure justice.
What I can talk about are the performances of this formidable ensemble cast. With three months of rehearsals and an additional three months of shooting, they became a real family. Everything you see here is organic. From Augustina's grandmotherly kisses and Raimunda's bloodshot tearful eyes, to Paula and Irene's heart-wrenching monologues, there is not an inauthentic moment to be found. Volver is a grand theatrical play at the zenith of its run, whose audience moves along with the action.
Penélope Cruz earned her Oscar nomination with this portrayal of a woman whose life is an onion of experience and emotion. With the peeling back of each layer, we see a different person—the innocence of her youth, the bitterness of being forced into adulthood far too soon, the resolved unhappiness of a wife in a dead marriage, the beauty, sex appeal, and resourcefulness of woman in her prime, and the determination of a mother to provide for a child she loves more than life itself. Her nomination could have been earned simply for her lip-synched performance of the film's title song.
Lola Dueñas is magnificent as the skittish Sole, afraid of her own shadow but never letting that slow her down. She is Volver's comedic heart. Lola's quick glances, inspired line reads, throwaway non-sequitors, and impeccable naturalistic reactions to everything make her the most beloved character of the film. I laughed out loud several times, many of which were thanks to Sole.
If Sole is the funny bone, Augustina is Volver's soul. Blanca Portillo is arresting as the perpetually tormented spinster who cares for everyone but herself. The burdens she has taken on—dark family secrets, the disappearance of her mother, and the care for Raimunda's Aunt Paula—have eaten away at her physical body in the form of cancer. Augustina is desperately searching for answers, and in turn redemption, before her time runs out. And yet, when given the opportunity to heal in exchange for unburdening her tormented soul, she chooses once again to forsake herself to protect the people she loves.
Which brings us to the transcendent Carmen Maura (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). She is the Spanish equivalent of Sophia Loren—beautiful, larger than life, and at ease in her own skin. At one time she was referred to as Almodóvar's muse, but a falling out in the late '80s soured their working relationship. Together again for the first time in more than 15 years, their partnership is as rich as ever. Maura's portrayal of Irene, Raimunda and Sole's mother, rivals that of Cruz—the radiance of her smile, the depth of emotion in her eyes, the impeccable delivery of a challenging monologue—brilliant on every level. They are the bookends of Volver—both on and off the screen. A mother and daughter separated by years of heartbreak and angst, reunited to begin anew—much like Maura and Almodóvar.
I won't even attempt to speak to the prowess of Almodóvar as a filmmaker. There are many who can do that subject much more justice than I. However, I will say that his ability to craft tales this superb will have me loading up my Netflix queue with his previous films.
Let me not forget that this is, in fact, the Blu-ray edition of Volver, whose technical prowess surpasses even a good theatrical showing. Sacrilege, I know, but truer words were never spoken. One look at the clarity of the imagery in this HD 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer—the stress lines on Augustina's face, the grout of the tile in Aunt Paula's courtyard, the astounding vibrancy of reds, blues, and yellows in Salvador Parra's production design, the decay of the La Mancha and Madrid locations where they shot—will spoil your appreciation for even the best standard DVD transfers. What's more, Alberto Iglesias' incredible score, channeling the best of Bernard Herrmann, comes through in ways I never thought possible from a PCM 5.1 audio track on a simple home theatre setup. There are times you could swear the ambient noise found within José Antonio Bermúdez' sound design where originating from your own home. Believe me, I was the first to question the validity of the high definition format, seeing this as just another way to milk cash from the high-end audio/video-philes of the world. But this process is remarkable. Granted, not all of the Blu-ray releases are of this caliber, but this is most definitely a step above the world of standard DVD. Don't take my word for it though, experience it for yourself and decide. You won't be disappointed.
With respect to bonus materials, Sony has included several nice but not purchase swaying features. At the top of the list is a lively and engaging commentary between Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Almodóvar is like a little kid rediscovering the magic of a path he has traveled many times before. For those who do not appreciate subtitles, beware. Like the principal audio track, the commentary is done in Spanish with English subtitles. For everyone else, this conversation will add a new level of appreciation and understanding to Volver. The Making of Volver is more a video scrapbook set to music than a behind-the-scenes tour the title would lead you to believe. Interviews with Almodóvar, Cruz, and Carmen Maura are conducted by what appears to be a member of the German media assisted by a Spanish translator. The three interviewees' answers to her questions slide between English and Spanish without much thought and are interesting but not substantive. Blame the interviewer for that. A Tribute to Penélope Cruz is a conversation recorded before the film's Hollywood premiere between Cruz and Los Angeles Time film critic Ken Turan, much in the vein of James Lipton's Inside the Actor's Studio. This and the audio commentary are the two most valuable of Volver's bonus materials. And finally, a photo gallery of production stills and theatrical posters round out the mix. I've yet to fully understand or appreciate these galleries, seeing them as little more than filler when more insightful material could not be included. But that's just me.
For as much as 2006 was heralded as the coming of age for Mexican film—Babel, Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth—let us not overlook their Spanish brethren. Volver is a beautiful character study on the human condition, rife with guilt, passion, humor, and intrigue. If you have yet to experience a foreign film, what are you waiting for? This is a great time to start. And in the Blu-ray format, you certainly cannot go wrong.
Charges? What charges? The Volver of Pedro Almodóvar is of benefit to us all. Case dismissed.
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• Audio commentary by Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz
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