Monday, February 19, 2007

FILM: "Volver"

Roughly every two years, Pedro Almodovar rolls out another quirky but classical film about families in distress. What's astonishing is not that his films are all excellent—only in America is that truly a surprise—but that he manages to say so many different things in each picture while using the same relatively minimal shots. Volver, his latest film, is the most straightforward—based on broad dramatic forms rather than an established genre (like the noir of Bad Education)—but that doesn't make it any less beautiful. It actually serves to make it more sublime: whereas Hollywood might stylize the subtext, ala American Beauty (which is fine in its own right), Almodovar has drenched Volver with so much realism that the ordinary beauty is at times hard to take. However, that realism extends towards the story, and in homage to real life, Almodovar leaves so many loose ends that afterward, many of the scenes seem superfluous and the film itself, unfinished: the family may be fine, but what about everyone else?

A murder leads off the film, but it quickly fades out of frame. Surprise: the story is really about Irene (the wistful, childlike Carmen Maura), a ghost (perhaps) who has returned seeking resolution with her daughters, the superstitious Sole (Lola Duedas) and the hardworking realist Raimundo (Penelope Cruz, who deserves all the awards she has been winning for this performance). The trouble is, Almodovar keeps showing us scenes from Raimundo's work in the restaurant instead of those with the mother, or even the corpse that's frozen in cold storage, and it turns out to be just another mundane thing after all. As for Raimundo's rebellious daughter – well, aside from killing her father (to be fair, it was in sexual self-defense), she's very much on the tame side and is probably the least realistic of the characters.

The truth of the matter is that while the events are compelling and tragic, and the acting is strong and textured, the pacing is slow and the focus is too wide. The cultural sequences are very powerful, but once we've seen the community's group mourning or their over-the-top kiss-kiss greetings, it starts being more show than tell. Very little happens through the middle of the film, and while it's true that real life is made up of false starts and stops as we try to muster up the courage to follow through on our plans, it can be just as frustrating to see that on the big screen as to see it in real life. That kind of personal, quiet beauty is what keeps films like these relegated to limited screenings in the art house.

Volver is strongest when it is focused on the immediate and before the individual quirks of the characters have worn off. For instance, when Raimundo is covering up the murder, it is to the lush orchestral score of an early suspense film. However, she does it with the detached grace of a housewife, sopping up the blood with a bed of paper towels and then determinedly swabbing the rest with a mop. Another critical scene involves the early interactions between Irene and her daughter, Sole: though Irene is thought to be dead, she acts like anything but a ghost and even, at one point, gets stuck in the trunk of a car. Sole spends much of the film in a frenzied befuddlement that's delightful to watch; she is trying to be the good girl even though she is obviously terrified of the dead.

Coming back to the point; Volver is very much a character film that offers a sprawling series of stories, only to become frustratingly obtuse when it only follows through on two or three of those yarns. There's nothing to complain about in the cinematography—it's the exact opposite of the storytelling: crisp and tight, without a single loose frame. Perhaps it's the disconnect between how accurate the camera is with how vague the story becomes that is so frustrating, or perhaps its just that Almodovar ends up more interested with the art of his family than with the story. Either way, Volver is a well-made film that just isn't all that exciting to watch.

[First posted to Gather, 2/19]

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