Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is the most original motion picture I’ve seen in ages. With a plot worthy of Hitchcock at his most whimsical, the most ardently feminist vision in a major motion picture since Thelma & Louise – women take care of one another, men are loners who abuse & abandon – and a tremendous cast with women in every major role, Volver is one of those terrific evenings at the movies you want to go on & on.

Volver is a film about relationships between women, but not necessarily one about easy camaraderie. Agustina, played by Spanish TV and theater actress Blanca Portillo, makes a serious, even desperate, request of her lifelong friend & one-time neighbor, Raimunda, played by Penélope Cruz, but Raimunda fails to take her seriously. Raimunda rejected her mother in life so deeply that when the spirit of the mother – portrayed by Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown star Carmen Maura – returns, she hides from her daughter. Raimunda refuses to tell her own daughter Paula, played by the brilliantly sulking Yohana Cobo, who her biological father really is. Raimunda lies to Emilio, who leaves her the keys to his failing restaurant, and to anyone who asks the whereabouts of her husband Paco. Her own mother’s deceptions are no less grand.

I’m not the right person to judge whether or not Almadóvar is the best person to make a film that is so thoroughly from a woman’s point of view, tho it’s not the first time he’s done this. In many respects, I think this is his most successful motion picture. The narrative architecture is less happenstance & even elegant, the story line compelling, and the acting is terrific. In fact, one reason why Cruz won’t win the Oscar for which she’s been nominated this year (Helen Mirren being another) is that Cruz, who does an effective job throughout and is brilliant in the scenes with her daughter & in one scene in particular, filmed entirely in close-up, where she’s rejected her drunken, unemployed husband & lies in bed listening to him masturbate, is that her work here doesn’t stand out from the first-rate acting of the others, especially Cobo or Maura (who is the most charming ghost since Leo G. Carroll played Cosmo Topper).

As wonderful as Volver is, it does suffer from the perennial film cliché of powerful problems that could have been solved far more simply if only the characters would communicate with one another. It continues to amaze me just how many motion pictures present stories that would unravel if some key character would just ask a question that is screaming to be posed. And while the narrative scaffolding is not nearly as improvised as in Almodóvar’s earlier films, one visit to the river from CSI Madrid would give this film an entirely different – and far more ominous – ending. Further, Raimunda has a janitorial position in a large corporation that simply disappears when it stops being convenient for narrative development. ¿Que pasa? There is also the detail that Raimunda, having been a teenage mother married to a drunken lout & working at back-breaking manual labor for years, remains drop-dead beautiful. And there is, in the middle of all this narrative, a break for one song, something that makes no sense structurally at all.

But other touches are far more subtle & effective. A producer of the film that’s shooting in the vicinity, and who hires Raimunda & the restaurant she has more or less appropriated to feed lunch to his crew, clearly is attracted to Cruz. They don’t get together but the moment where it almost happens is a soft, perfectly directed scene (it’s also the one point in the movie where Almodóvar at least entertains the idea that not all men are monsters). Also pitch perfect are most of the comedic scenes, my favorite being the ghost in the trunk of the car.

The one thing about this movie I flat out don’t understand is how it got an “R” rating. Is it because the plot revolves around “adult” themes? Because we see Cobo, who is supposed to be 14 (but is actually 22), topless for about five seconds? Because there’s blood (tho no violence)? The squeamishness of the American film rating system has hardly ever looked less intelligent.