Monday, November 06, 2006

A Lite Simmer

To say that Almodovar had been on a roll is to put things quite mildly. His past few films (what I jokingly call Talk To My Mother About Her Bad Education) have been true masterpieces. All About My Mother earned him the Oscar everyone thought he would never receive. Talk To Her found an insanely great audience as far as foreign film distribution is concerned. Bad Education, perhaps the sleeper of the three, was a formidably multi-faceted tale of betrayals. With drawn suspense, the public has awaited Volver (literally, To Return) with great expectations, not merely because it heralds Almodovar's return to Penelope Cruz (in his hands, we last saw her as All About My Mother's HIV positive, pregnant nun), but his reunion with Carmen Maura, star of his brilliant Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. After taking home a couple trophies at the Cannes film festival (one for the ensemble cast of vivacious actresses), the film finally opened last week in a limited run.

Though Volver is irrefutably Almodovar, it is a far quieter world than that which we have come to expect from him. Soaring melodramatics and lush tableau vivants are still intact, but it is as though someone has fiddled with the volume switch, placing a greater importance on the speakers, rather than that noise which emanates from them. Cruz is rather lovely as the buoyant Raimunda, whose daughter kills her incestuous father in the first act. In her slight, tenement apartment (so much more humble than Celia Roth's palatial apartment in All About My Mother - and she was unemployed) Cruz must clean up the gore with her mundanely feminine housekeeping implements. A grocery store mop sluiced about in murky red water, squeezed dry and brought back to the bloodied kitchen tile with blue be-gloved hands. The humor of the parallel is not lost on Almodovar, yet neither is the poignancy of the moment. It is at once comedic, sensitive, macabre, heartbreaking and redemptive.

Yet a bit of steam has been let loose from the film which makes it hard to relate to as one might have Almodovar's prior films. It is certainly an approach which I could see working to produce a more muted and focused narrative, but that is not entirely the case. At its lesser moments, the film comes off as cold and overt in a way that causes an empathetic disjunct. We cannot mourn with Raimunda because we are never truly allowed access to her. When her mother Irene "returns" from the grave, the specter is less spectacularly spectral and yet not human enough. Though Almodovar does have the capacity to slighten his grandiose tendencies, his decision to do so does not seem complete. Sadly, the end result is rather lopsided. There are fantastic things about Volver. There are magical moments of sobering meditation - on objects, people and relationships. It ultimately proves to be quite good, but does not achieve the greatness of his prior works. It is no great surprise that Volver was the film for which the retrospective Viva Pedro festival was organized. It certainly contains a slew of his signature tropes, so much so that prior knowledge of his canon are key to gaining the greatest amount of appreciation, here. And if we learned anything from the character Lulu in All About My Mother, a great dependence is also a great detriment.


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