The Films of Pedro Almodovar – #3: Volver

Michael Prescott
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Concluding the trilogy of some of Almodovar’s best-known films – the first of which came in the form of religious-mockery in Bad Education and was followed with the heartfelt coming-of-middle-age drama All About My Mother – is the spiritual journey of Volver.

The films of this director – as I have maintained throughout my previous two articles – are notoriously difficult to define. Or, given the complexity and the amount that each film covers, they are if you try to centralise the piece down to one issue. The irony of attempting to do just this in the opening paragraph above is not lost on me, and so these loosely-concise definitions should be taken with the advised amount of salt (‘one pinch’).

Nonetheless, part of the challenge in watching any film – though particularly an Almodovar gem (as they always seem to be) – is in the idea of really ‘getting it’. No doubt most films comprise of more topics, themes, ideas and situations than anything from a one-line definition to 500-word review can truly represent, but there is usually one single and central idea, argument or statement that someone with more talent than I can coax out of a film, as “what it is actually about”.

There are lots of strings to Volver’s bow, as expected, and for a while as you watch, it feels difficult to adequately pin down the crux of the narrative. First and foremost it shares a lot of similarities and overlapping preliminaries with All About My Mother: the core group are once again universally female with male characters only making peripheral ‘impacts’, and the most significant of these male-character actions take place off-screen (significant in itself).

A neat role-reversal for sure, but it isn’t merely constricted to being a means without an end. This isn’t simply a statement from Almodovar: or at least, if it is, then it goes beyond that. Instead he uses it to open new avenues that can be explored within the narrative. An example – just like All About My Mother – is the relationship between daughters and mothers: an un-graspable examination in a male-dominated film. If this portrayal displayed the grapple between young mums and children in the previous film, then in Volver it flips to focus on the relationship dynamic between middle-aged women and their elder relatives.

Rather than looking after youth, it’s to the promise of death that we turn to. All About My Mother is almost directly referenced during a brief conversation between the mother (Penelope Cruz) and her on-screen daughter, where the repeated conversation of “where am I from?” from Almodovar’s previous work rears its unwanted head. This becomes a motif of Volver in-and-of itself, and the repeated answer is, to paraphrase, “someday I’ll tell you”. This invokes a feeling of the afterlife; life flashing before one’s eyes, death, the pearly gates, and finally the unrelenting truth of existence revealed in whatever particular purgatorial endpoint your beliefs lead you to. Unless I’m reading too much into it.

Irrespective of all that, the claim is that what this film is about is death and our responses to it, hence the heavy influence of spirituality. The main strand of the film as I see it is supported by the mums, dads, aunties and grandparents of the show either dying or being talked about since they’re already dead. Of course what this all relates back to is that particular influence on those still living. This is where it really comes into its own.

Our reactions to death are, forgive me for stating the obvious, personal and unique. They depend on a set of shared customs and cultures, but at the same time one’s own private values and beliefs. This all while being affected and adjusted by the opinions and outlooks of friends, families and other irritating outside forces. Context is key, and culture is context. The way of celebrating or mourning a village loved one in this particular place just happens to be a little different to what we might expect, but this cultural variance is cited throughout. The polar reaction of the two sisters is the best example of this, and serves to speak volumes about the diversity of emotions and responses we’re able to give – consciously or otherwise – to those both living and dead.

Though in terms of plot it remains a fairly typical melodramatic mystery, for Almodovar, this is his way of masquerading some of the themes that linger beneath the surface as a satisfying twisty family drama. Even skin-deep the film does this overly-dramatic structure well: the foreshadowing noticed afterwards helps us to realise how meticulous he is as a director. But even these are vehicles in order to present themes with undertones that resonate with an audience and provide an insight into our various relationships with death.

Like any clever film that wants to discuss death or think about spirituality and other such hazy and unknowable concepts, it blurs the boundaries. This gives a particular character an almost Studio Ghibli sensation of gentle creepiness whilst the rest of the film has that purgatorial quality of In Bruges, or the feeling of trapped other-worldliness of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. But it’s the song that comes roughly halfway through the film that best captures the essence of what Volver is about. This coming to terms with loss, or the failure to do so, leads to a sort of societal circularity, and a chain of continuity where future generations potentially suffer with the parental burden put upon them.

Volver, to sum up, is another fast-paced, unpredictable tale of several accounts of women which concerns itself particularly with spirituality and contextualising death, and even despite being longer than the other two in this Almodovar viewing trilogy, it doesn’t drag its feet at all. The quick cutting means that – just like All About My Mother, Bad Education and pretty much everything else he’s done – he creates a fascinating, provocative and accessible piece of viewing with plenty left to explore underneath. Bravo, Pedro! I’m So Excited is released in the UK on May 3rd and it can’t come quickly enough.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott