[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 21, November 2006]
Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2006 (English subtitles)
Pedro Almodóvar's early trash aesthetic exemplified the exuberant post-Franco cultural renaissance in Spain, juggling marginal sexualities, misfits and fuck-ups to subvert bourgeois morality like an Iberian Warhol or John Waters. From a recurrent motif of the performative nature of identity - where destructive impulses mingle with liberatory expressive yearnings in the pursuit of happiness - he has developed a unique cinematic language of character and motivation, recalling Hitchcock and Bunuel but favouring decidedly downmarket narratives. Consistently flouting all social, artistic, moral and political conventions (of Left and Right), and despite leading calls for withdrawal from the Iraq war, he is usually touted as apolitical, preoccupied with fashion and celebrity; his films dismissed as superficial. So, variously seen as enjoyably trivial, crowd-pleasing but conservative, or lazy postmodern whimsy, his sixteenth feature Volver (Spanish for 'return') stars Penelope Cruz (fresh from Hollywood flops) as Raimunda, a glamorous Madrid cleaner, with Carmen Maura (the director's muse in the 1980s) her estranged mother Irene, in a comic tale of family dysfunction, motherly love, old age and death.
Whereas his previous film (Bad Education, 2004) detailed the tortuous effects on the lives of boyhood friends of the abuse and oppression perpetrated by the Catholic church, this time the 'revenge' against the dark days of fascist dictatorship continues more obliquely - showing cultural patterns from traditional peasant communities in La Mancha transformed into the contemporary urban lower class. In both settings the tasks of facilitating social reproduction and ameliorating the damage wrought by the patriarchs fall on women. The village folklore, which comfortingly rationalised suffering and hardship while sanctioning existing power, is now replaced by injunctions to hysterical narcissism on daytime and reality TV amid the inherently chaotic economics and social pathologies of the city - provoking a 'return of the repressed' where feminine frustration and lack of fulfilment feed generational tangles of trauma, resentment and reconciliation; and reaffirming and reinforcing the writer-director's affectionate respect for women.
However, Volver transcends the soapy limits of Hollywood melodrama and neo-realism's tragic heroines and earth mothers, with its exaggerated sentimentality concealing deep ambivalence rippling throughout the social fabric. Overweening efforts to care for others shade into domination: producing smothering instead of nurturance; loneliness along with cohesion; loss overshadowing love; and, most tellingly, denial and duplicity reverberating among mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbours and friends. So, having disavowed her husband's sexual abuse of Raimunda, Irene was promptly banished from her life. Now, Raimunda not only similarly fails to protect her own teenage daughter Paula - who kills stepfather Paco when he attempts rape - but monopolises the fallout, disempowering and infantilising her too. On cue, the ghost of Irene appears, and old wounds finally heal while new ones inevitably open. Far subtler than the critics credited, this poignant, occasionally hilarious, but troubled tribute to female solidarity thus also marks matriarchal omnipotence - like all wish-fulfilment fantasies - as coping mechanism rather than (re)solution.
Sometimes sufficiently exasperated at machismo's persistence to mercilessly deconstruct its baleful emotional frigidity, Almodóvar more typically dismisses 'normal' masculinity as obtrusive nuisance - privileging women as models for human strength and agency, however circumscribed by prevailing real-life or representational circumstances encouraging passive victimhood and objectification. The legendary alertness to nuances of feminine sociability - with an arguably gay sensitivity to dissimulation, display and masquerade - stems from an impoverished rural childhood in an extended female clan (men largely absent in the fields), followed by work as a Madrid telephonist surrounded by women colleagues. His labyrinthine narratives expertly undermine gendered cliches of voyeurism and identification ubiquitous in visual culture, intertwining diverse layers of twisted heightened intricacy from gossip, friendship, rivalry and Oedipal perversion. As boundaries blur between the painful intransigences of real life and the unconscious fantasy-worlds which mould libidinal excess into personality, monstrous, delirious farces ensue - which, nevertheless, consistently contrast malignant stifled conformity with more exploratory, mobile sensualities.
Volver, though, displaces to backstory the circular cul-de-sacs of reciprocal obsession among neglectful mothers and envious daughters intimately dissected in earlier films, with their sexual transgressiveness appearing only indirectly - as in Raimunda paying the local prostitute 'the going rate' for helping dispose of Paco's body. The cathartic humour equalises status in the messy facts of flesh, beautifully condensing class, gender and generational conflict (Raimunda explaining away blood from the corpse as 'women's troubles'; the telltale aroma of Irene's farting suggesting that she is indeed no ghost). But the connective tissues of mutuality now sublimate in shared experience the raw intensity of fetishistic attachment - lifting burdens of unfinished business; redeeming past mistakes and misfortunes; creating chances for the characters to satisfy both their own and each other's needs. Thus even their most urgent worldly activities (sequestering the café to service a visiting film crew; Solé's illicit hairdressing salon) prioritise direct human relations over official economics and professional mediation, in this more balanced dialectic of desire and altruism.
Almodóvar's aesthetic libertarianism evidences Spain's uneven emergence from its feudal hangover - hippies, new romantics and rave culture cross-fertilising in a decadent carnival of pop-art punk indulgence. Refusing middle-class taste, intellectual pretension, cinematic propriety and corporate control, it exposes the fundamentally dominative corruption of hierarchical discourse - liberal capitalism and political correctness included - whereas the uncontrollable, unknowable contingencies of individuality constitute the collective richness of the social ensemble. Upsetting every po-faced certainty going (anticipating countless trends in fashionable academic gender theory, and travestying them too), his gradual thematic shift expanded the focus to the wider social ramifications of forging one's own selfish course - reflecting the national political climate, as optimistic euphoria concerning consumerist democracy soured with the defeat of the widely-detested Socialists. The recent films signal how violent convulsions can rearticulate historical fragments into fresh configurations - the lawlessness of passion having its own self-determining dynamic, resisting repressive coding, suitable for mobilisation with vulgar intelligence and vigorous goodwill for the benefit of all. Luxuriating in popular pleasures, ridiculing pomposity and skewering superiority, Almodóvar is one of the few mainstream artists in any medium or genre whose work testifies so openly and resolutely to this potential.