Pedro Almodóvar’s film Volver, like most of his films, is straight up brilliant. This man knows women, he knows how they interact with each other, how they live, and cook, and laugh, and try, and he obviously loves everything about them. Beauty in the Movies is all about putting a focus on films that feature strong female characters and celebrating how dynamic and interesting they can be. In Volver we are swept up in the relationships of three generations of women, their passion, their secrets, and their strength. It’s a film about life, death, and the past that can come back to haunt you, even if it’s long since been buried.
Volver begins with two sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), along with Raimunda’s daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), cleaning the graves of their parents in a small village in La Mancha Spain where their elderly Aunt still lives. Despite their Aunt being senile and unsure of who they are, they find her house well maintained and even find packages of freshly made food labeled with their names, leading them to believe she can’t be as bad as she appears. After discussing their Aunt’s state with the woman across the road, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who also informs them of the disappearance of her mother, they head back to their lives in Madrid. After returning home from La Mancha with Paula, Raimunda finds her husband, Paco, has lost his job and is drowning his sorrows in beer and football on the couch.
A few days later Raimunda, upon coming home exhausted from work, finds Paula waiting for her at the bus stop in a state of shock. As they return to their apartment Paula breaks down and tells her mother that her father, Paco, after insisting that he wasn’t her father, tried to rape her, and in self-defense she stabbed and killed him. In the midst of all this, Raimunda receives a call from Sole informing her that their Aunt has passed away and they must return to La Mancha for the funeral. Sole is forced to attend the funeral on her own as Raimunda refuses to go. While in La Mancha Sole hears the townspeople discussing “un fantasma”, or “the ghost” that had been haunting their Aunt up until her death. Augustina tells Sole that the townspeople, including herself, have seen and heard their Aunt talking to their dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), and it’s said that she took care of their ailing Aunt in her senility. Augustina explains that this is common when a person who dies has unfinished business; they return to put things right before they can rest. When Sole leaves La Mancha and returns to Madrid, she is shocked to find that the ghost of her mother has stowed away in her trunk, and she has come with suitcases, prepared to move in with her. Remembering what Augustina has told her, she knows she must figure out what her mother has come back to do, and she must keep her mother’s presence a secret from Raimunda, who she knows would never believe her. I’ve already given away too much, but obviously this story is told with far more elegance and humor than I could ever convey in a brief summary, so you’ll just have to go out and watch it for yourself.
Volver doesn’t pass the reverse Bedchel test, which means it has very few male characters, and none that are complex. It’s OK though, because it’s very clear that the story is about this family, so rather than spend time fleshing out male characters that don’t serve the story, the plot concentrates on the characters who are important, and they just happen to be women. Unlike films like Fried Green Tomatoes or a League of their Own, both of which I obviously love, Volver doesn’t scream “girl power, yeah!”, it’s just a great film with incredible characters and the fact that they’re women is simply part of the story—not the point of the story.
I hate that we even need the Bedchel test, and I have some favorite films that don’t pass it, and that doesn’t make them any less valid as outstanding films. The test is important though, because it draws people’s attention to the lack of female characters in movies, and it gets people thinking about why that is. When we start seeing more American movies that center on women the way that Volver does, in that there isn’t a big deal made about this film being “about women” they’re just people with interesting stories, then we’ll know we’ve really come far—and I’m not talking about independent films, I’m talking about mainstream cinema.
Penélope Cruz used to annoy the hell out of me until I saw this film. In Volver she plays a character worthy of Sophia Loren, and looks every bit the part, Almodóvar even gave her extra padding around her butt to reinforce the robustly feminine character of Raimunda. She plays the entire story teetering on the verge—but not in an obvious way. You never lose the sense that this woman has struggled and is still struggling, but she pulls it together and takes care of everyone around her. She is so mesmerizing and natural in this film you can’t help but feel for her and also want to look just like her. Her wardrobe is made up of pencil skirts and low-cut tops with cute sweaters and comfy looking espadrilles, I love that her clothes look affordable (but not cheap) and a bit worn, it instantly gives her character personality. She manages to look like a real working mother who is stressed-out and disheveled, while still appearing incredibly feminine and sexy.
The climax of this film isn’t a car chase, or a death scene, or a big party, it’s an emotional climax, and not one that happens with a lot of screaming or tears. The passion is definitely there, but it’s quiet, and that makes it all the more powerful. How many movies have a climax which is just a conversation between two people? A secret may be revealed yes, but the characters already know about it, so it’s the audience who are surprised. Volver doesn’t follow a formula, but it also doesn’t go out of its way to break any either. The camera pushes in on a group of people, you watch the events that unfold around them, and when everything that needed to be shown has been shown, the camera pulls away without much fanfare, it’s a very organic way to tell a story.
Death is a major theme in this film, but even more so it’s about the cyclical nature of life. Both the title Volver, which means literally “to return”, and the use of the famous windmills which the women pass as they drive back and forth to La Mancha, are direct references to the rotation implicit in life. In the world Almodóvar gives us, death is very much a part of living. The superstitions in the small town and the acceptance the sisters take to those superstitions as they experience them for themselves, play a large part in the story. While watching this film you believe that yes, death is painful—but it isn’t as devastating if we see it as part of the cycle. When death is so much a part of living that the boundaries bleed into each other, we can allow ourselves to believe whatever helps us cope with what could otherwise be a complete tragedy, and who can’t say there is some comfort in that?
So, if you’re like me and you wish you could dress like (and then look like) Penélope Cruz in this film, with her seemingly effortless sex appeal, take a look at some of the pieces below for inspiration.
Have a great weekend everyone, and if you like this blog, please don’t forget to tell people about it!!
$50 – target.com
More cardigans »
$136 – neimanmarcus.com
More KORS Michael Kors sandals »
$349 – heavenlytreasures.com
More earrings »
15 GBP – habitat.co.uk
$41 – endless.com