Volver began its life as a fictional manuscript in another Pedor Almodovar movie, The Flower of My Secret. Its author, Leo Macias, was a romance novelist dissatisfied with the very narrow niche she had contracted into, that of churning out 4 “Pink” novels a year with strict guidelines and regulations. Caught in the emotional turmoil of being married to a long distant husband, Leo writes a “Noir” that her publishers reject. Pitched in the garbage, the manuscript is stolen and sold to a movie producer who makes The Freezer without her consent.
Two stories of murder, sex, and secrets weave around each other in this sordid Spanish soap opera, connected with Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), a small town girl who lives in Madrid’s suburbs. Three years ago, Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) lost their parents in a fire, wrapped in each others arms. This year, at the funeral of their elderly Aunt Paula, Raimunda learns that their aunt used to talk to their mother’s ghost. After the funeral, the ghost transfers from Aunt Paula to Sole.
Back at home, Raimunda’s daughter Paula is reaching puberty and has become the object of her father’s lust. After Paula is sexually assaulted, she defends herself and accidentally kills her father. Working to defend Paula, Raimunda takes the opportunity to “rent” a friend’s empty restaurant property to cater for a film crew while hiding the body in the freezer. Secrets beget secrets, but are all secrets made equal?
You might think this movie is pure pulpy noir, but it has more in common with the 1950s woman’s picture and Fellini’s expressionist neorealism. Even as Almodovar deals with incest, rape, murder, lust and secrecy, Volver maintains a defiant bounce and joie de vivre. Life doesn’t stop until it stops and you have to embrace every moment because opportunities are around every corner and present themselves when they’re most needed. If you don’t smile and laugh through the tragedy, you’ll crumble and die.
None of this would succeed without Penelope Cruz’s strong, fierce, and complicated performance of a newly single mother trying her hardest to make the best out of life for herself and for her daughter. In a film dominated by women, all making the best of their various situations, Cruz’s Raimunda shines as the beacon of strength around which her community and her family cycle. Jose Luis Alcaine’s rich and saturated color palette drowning in Almodovar’s trademark bold colors, especially red…the color of life, passion and blood.
Blood connects both stories of family: one generation older, and one generation younger. Almodovar’s obsession with connecting the past and the present finally finds its groove with storytelling as reliant on performances and imagery as it is on storytelling and exposition. Exuding joy and determination, Volver is Almodovar finding perfection that, in the past 11 years, he still hasn’t surpassed. What happens when a director’s best work is also his most accessible? Volver is both the perfect gateway and the pinnacle of Almodovar’s brilliant career. Next steps: All About My Mother and Bad Education.