Sunday, April 8, 2012

She is Risen!

Film: Volver
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

A few days ago, I tried to get a little ahead on my movie watching, so I plugged in Volver. I managed to get about 20 minutes in before I turned it off. I just couldn’t get into it. I tried again today, and I’m happy to say that my inability to watch this film the other night rests entirely on my shoulders, and is not the problem of the film. I enjoyed it far more than my initial foray would have had me guess.

This is not to say that the film is without its problems. It has a major one that’s difficult to talk about without spoiling the entire film. I’m going to try, but you can assume there will be a spoiler tag coming up in the near future. Anyway, regardless of the problems of this film, it has one major plus going for it: Penelope Cruz. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call her a favorite of mine; in addition to being very easy to look at, she’s also extremely talented, and Volver is plenty of evidence of that.

Raimunda (Cruz) returns to the village of her birth to take care of the gravestone of her parents, who died in a fire. She is with her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas). While in town, they visit their friend Augustine (Blanca Portillo) and their aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). Tia Paula is old, becoming infirm, and not sure what decade she is living in any more. She seems to be hallucinating, claiming that Raimunda’s and Sole’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura) has returned from the dead and lives with her, helping around the house.

They return to Madrid, and the film takes a strange left turn. Raimunda’s husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) claims that Paula is not his daughter and tries to molest her, and Paula reacts by killing him. Raimunda works to clean up the mess only to find that Tia Paula has died, and that she has been charged with selling off the restaurant of an old boss. While she disposes of Paco’s body by placing him in a freezer in the restaurant, Sole returns for Paula’s funeral and discovers that her mother’s spirit now appears to her and follows her to Madrid.

And, to add more fun to the mix, we learn that Augustine has cancer and is terminal. All she wants is to discover what has happened to her mother, who disappeared on the same day that Raimunda’s parents died in the fire. There’s enough here to figure out exactly what happened, but to talk about it, we need that spoiler tag I mentioned earlier.


Okay, so Raimunda’s mother isn’t dead. She was never dead. It turns out that Augustine’s mother was having an affair with Raimunda’s father. Worse, he also molested Raimunda, and young Paula is both her daughter and her sister (following Chinatown and followed by Precious). When she discovered this, Irene burned the house down, then vanished, and has appeared as a “spirit” ever since. All she really wants is to reconcile with her children, particularly Raimunda, who was so badly wronged.

As much as this was supposed to be a big reveal, though, I didn’t buy it for a second. As soon as Irene showed up, I knew who she was, and I knew she wasn’t dead. I didn’t put all of the pieces together, but I did figure out that she was alive from the first moment. She didn’t look like a phantom, for instance, and she had far too many physical characteristics. She was solid. She was capable of working for Soledad, for instance, and when she travelled to Madrid, she did so inside Sole’s trunk. In short, she didn’t act like a ghost at all.

It leaves me in a strange position. See, I rather liked this movie for the simple fact that I got that the spirit thing was an act. I don’t know how much it was supposed to work as something I didn’t get, because I wasn’t really fooled by it. The problem with that is that it immediately calls into question the essential intelligence of everyone in the film with the exception of Raimunda, who sees through the ruse immediately.


The major problem with Volver is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s a whole subplot, for instance, about the restaurant that Raimunda tries to sell for her former boss. A movie crew working in the area decides that evidently it’s the only restaurant in all of Madrid that they can eat at, so Raimunda opens it up specifically for them. Why? While this offered us a few plot points, and gave us a temporary place for the body of Paco, it felt in many ways like padding.

Regardless, it’s well acted and surprisingly entertaining. I do love me some Penelope Cruz, and Blanca Portillo is an absolute find, and is my favorite non-Penelope character in the film. It’s worth seeing for the depth of the relationships of the characters, but I can’t help but think I’d have liked it more if it could have decided what exactly it wanted to be and simply focused on that rather than trying for so much real life that didn’t intercept with the plot.

Why to watch Volver: Because it stars Penelope Cruz.
Why not to watch: It’s not sure what it wants to be.


  1. This is Pedro Almodovar at his best. It has to have a touch of strangeness to work for him. I love this film. Penelope Cruz deserved the Oscar!

  2. I've actually owned this film since it came out on DVD and I've yet to get around to watching it. I've even had it set out special for about a month now since I went through the 1,001 list and saw it was on it (my book ends at 2002.) It's right there beside by copies of Intolerance and Chungking Express, both of which I've also owned for quite a while and haven't watched. I'll get around to watching them someday.