I’m coming to think of the three movies made by Almodóvar between the late 90s and the mid-2000s – Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Hable Con Ella and La Mala Educación – as his trinity of masterworks. Volver doesn’t achieve the giddy heights of those works, but it is still a work in which Almodóvar’s skills are evident. The convoluted narrative - which, in typically postmodern fashion, began as the novel which formed the crux of the plot in La Flor De Mi Secreto - follows Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a working mother living in Madrid who, as well as concealing her own secrets, begins to discover those kept by her deceased parents, her good-for-nothing husband, her sister Sole, and other figures from her childhood in a small village in La Mancha.
The story contains all the Almodóvarian trademarks – the secrets of the past emerging to shape the present, the strong bonds of family, film and – especially – (reality) television as media through which the story refracts, a strong aesthetic sense – but here these elements don’t mesh in quite the same way as in other works, don’t have the vivid freshness which they take on in the different combinations in which they are employed in his earlier films – they feel a little tired, a little too worked over. The visual character of the film doesn’t have the exuberant but stylised joy of earlier works, but neither does the subduing of this tone function in concert with a succesful exploration of serious emotional issues as it does in the films mentioned above. The conceits begin to lack sustainability – in this case, in particular, the ‘ghost’ of Raimunda’s mother, Irene.
One of the problems, to my mind, is Penélope Cruz – one of the great things about Almodóvar’s films are his female actors, who are never stereotypical Hollywood beauties, about whom there is always something a little rough around the edges, imperfect. Cruz, however, although she is a fine actress, never looks less than a pampered, doe-eyed star – and this tells against her (and thus against the film) particularly in her role as an exhausted mother working three menial jobs. In other films where he has employed actors of this typical type – as with Antonio Banderas – it has functioned with the role given to the character, but with Cruz, as also in her appearance in Carne Trémula, this is inappropriate – and Almodóvar seems besotted, unable to recognise this problematic. Indeed, the appearance of other Almodóvarian favourites here – the wonderful Chus Lampreave, who steals the show in her smallish role as Aunt Paula, as well as Carmen Maura as Irene – leave Cruz looking paradoxically washed-out in comparison. To take an emblematic example, if one compares the scene here in which Cruz sings at a party after not having allowed herself musical voice for years, in comparison to the similar scene featuring Caetano Veloso in Hable Con Ella, it seems almost kitsch, maudlin – but in a way which is most uncharacteristically unintentional.
Having said all this, Almodóvar has set himself extremely high standards, and Volver is by no means a failure. In particular, Blanca Portillo is wonderful as Agustina, the unconventional village neighbour. It’s interesting to see this film move away from solely exploring the cityscapes which Almodóvar loves so much, to the small La Manchan village which is the setting for the backstory and to which the characters periodically return – the villa in the countryside has certainly been a staple of Almodóvar’s work, a space to which characters retreat and which may also represent the grasp of the past and the way in which it encompasses the present, but here that space is expanded and filled with life – or rather, with the untrustworthy, gossiping, black-clad widows who may be seen as representing the ghosts of the past, but also, conversely, as an inescapable community of survival in the face of grief and loss. An interesting piece, but one which leaves hanging the question, whither next? Has Almodóvar’s obsessive exploration of a small number of tropes – one revitalised by the deeper emotional dimensions of his later work – finally reached a point of staleness, or does the master of the reinvention of events we believed to be known still have surprises lurking for his throng of faithful spectators?