Pedro AlmodÃ³var (Bad Education, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) is one of the few high-profile ‘auteur’ directors in the world today. Auteur – meaning ‘author’ – suggests that a director is the primary creator of a film, that his body of work and its themes and perspectives are entirely unique to him and his concerns. In other words; not a director for hire who is largely interchangeable with another, as usually tends to be the case in Hollywood and in other film industries.
Spanish-born AlmodÃ³var, who has won Oscars (for All About My Mother and Talk to Her) and been lauded around the world, has no-doubt been offered the lucrative opportunity to direct for Hollywood, but he has rather chosen to continue to make films about his country and its people.
From his early edgier films about gay boys, drag queens and matadors up to his more recent focus on women and families he has maintained a consistent yet evolving sensibility that is uniquely his. His output is unfalteringly good; I don’t think that he has directed a dud in decades. I’m happy to report that his newest film Volver continues this fine tradition.
It tells the story of two sisters from a village in La Mancha who now live in Madrid and the secrets that they will learn about their parents who died tragically in a fire. PenÃ©lope Cruz stars as one of the sisters, Raimunda, who discovers that her teenage daughter has killed her incestuous husband, and that her mother has returned from the dead to ask for her forgiveness for the betrayals of the past. It’s a film about family – how the same things seem to happen to every generation – and about how we deal with the cycles of death.
Volver is rich and warm in its depiction of the characters and lives of contemporary Spanish women – something that AlmodÃ³var is so remarkably good at reproducing. This is a world that is verging on melodrama yet is entirely authentic.
The film offers some remarkably beautiful moments – both emotionally and aesthetically (is there a difference really?) – such as an ailing character recounting that her deathbed is the same one on which she was born, a close-up of kitchen paper towels soaking up crimson blood on the floor or a reunited mother and daughter sitting on a street bench framed by a striking urban graffiti background.
For a film in which death plays such a prominent role, Volver is remarkably light and funny. AlmodÃ³var’s quirky humour and wit are evident throughout. Cruz is once again a revelation on screen. She is so earnestly beautiful and captivating that she barely needs to say a word to maintain our interest.
She is the heart and soul of Volver. And in this sense, she and AlmodÃ³var are the primary collaborators of the film (the two previously worked together on All About My Mother). If you’ve never seen Cruz act in her mother tongue, you’ve never really seen her come to life or experienced what a brilliant performer she really is. Cruz has been rightly nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role this year.
Be warned; Volver takes its time to tell the tale of Raimunda and her crazy family. This is no fast-paced Hollywood montage piece (consider a character recounting the shocking events of a murder in a close-up monologue without a single visual flashback). But if you’re prepared for the pace and the subtitles you’ll be rewarded with another thoroughly fulfilling masterpiece by one of cinema’s finest storytellers.