The relationship between the legendary Spanish actress Carmen Maura and director Pedro Almodóvar remains troubled. It began in the 1980s when she was famous and he was just starting out. Together they gained a lot of international attention, especially thanks to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). They simply clicked professionally, but saw things very differently on a personal level. When they reunited for Volver after not having worked together for years, they learned that their issues weren’t really resolved.
Art came to imitate life; Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (2019) had the lead character, a filmmaker, trying to get along with the star of a movie he made years ago. In any case, both Almodóvar and Maura are pros, which is evident in Volver.
Talking to a ghost
The film begins in a windy cemetery where Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her 14-year-old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) are cleaning the graves. They also visit an elderly aunt (Chus Lampreave) who talks about Raimunda’s mother as if she’s still alive, living with her in her apartment. This is painful for Raimunda since her parents died in a fire a few years earlier. She has a sister, Soledad (Lola Dueñas), who talks to one of the aunt’s neighbors, Agustina (Blanca Portillo). She tells her that she has in fact heard the aunt talk to a ghost – and then the spirit of Soledad’s mother, Irene (Maura), appears before her. Soledad is astounded but welcomes the ghost into her life, thinking she needs to hide her mother away in her hair salon, where Irene poses as a Russian employee.
Meantime, Raiumunda has problems of her own. When her husband tries to rape Paula, the girl stabs him to death and Raimunda hides the corpse in the freezer of a nearby restaurant. There are secrets that Raimunda hasn’t told her daughter…
There’s no way I can write that summary without making it look absolutely bonkers. Almodóvar has indeed included farcical elements in the film, including a whole subplot where Irene hides from Raimunda until the truth finally comes out. But the way it’s presented in the film is far from crazy – what we’re getting is an adult and original story about the deep love that holds members of a family together. Almodóvar based his script on a story about a Puerto Rican man that actress Marisa Paredes told him in 1995. He became so intrigued by it that he included it as the plot of a movie-within-the-movie that we can see in The Flower of My Secret (1995), which co-starred Paredes.
When the time came to make Volver a decade later, Almodóvar returned to the story but (expectedly) became more intrigued by a leading female character than a Puerto Rican man. The basic elements of the story still worked their way into the script whose primary theme is death and the Spanish culture surrounding it. Almodóvar was born in the La Mancha region where Volver takes place and knows it very well; from the first shot of the women cleaning graves and continuing throughout, the director holds firm to his theme, turning a potentially ridiculous plot about the return of a ghost into a smart and affecting tale about desperate women doing what they feel must be done.
The film became one of the director’s most lauded of the decade, and Cruz is phenomenally good as the industrious Raimunda, strongly supported by Maura and Dueñas as her mother and sister. Cruz’s performance honors the legacy of Italian neorelism and its women, Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale in particular. She also, famously, wears a prosthetic bottom. Sometimes, that’s what authenticity demands.
Volver 2006-Spain. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Esther García. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine. Music: Alberto Iglesias. Cast: Penélope Cruz (Raimunda), Carmen Maura (Irene Trujillo), Lola Dueñas (Soledad), Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave.
Cannes: Best Actress (the whole female ensemble), Screenplay. European Film Awards: Best Director, Actress (Cruz), Cinematographer, Composer.
Last word: “I think women have more freedoms to express their feelings and emotions. They are less shy and have less prejudice too. I think women can surprise us much better, probably because for centuries women were forced to live in silence in the shadows. So they have that capacity to surprise us much more. I find them more interesting as a subject matter to develop a story. When I started writing the script of ‘Volver’, I knew I wanted to write only about a female universe. And because this film is related to the memory from my childhood… when I grew up, I was surrounded by women: men were not there.” (Almodóvar, indieLondon)