A magical realist fable in the guise of a crime story, Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 Volver packs three generations of resilient Spanish women – who happen to be vulnerable and delicate as well – in a poignant and mysterious tale of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.
The melodramatic tone of Volver (which means to return) and the labyrinthine nature of the plot do not subtract from the impact the film leaves on the audience. This world populated almost exclusively by women, who while harming other women, also take comfort in the affection of other strong women, is rich in symbolism, metaphors and subtle meanings. Because the story is played out as a mystery tale, the full significance of things, hinted at the start, will be revealed only at its operatic end.
After cleaning their parents’ tombstones, back in Alcanfor de las Infantas, where they grew up, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), her sister Soledad (Lola Dueñas) and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) visit their elderly, dementia-striken aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). Before returning to Madrid, where they now live, the trio also see their friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). The following day, after a hard day at work, Raimunda gets off the bus and finds her daughter waiting for her on the street, distressed and petrified. Back at the house, where she finds her husband’s corpse on the kitchen’s floor, Paula explains that her drunk father tried to rape her and she, frightened, stabbed him.
While trying to conceal the body, Raimunda’s sister Sole phones to inform of the death of their aunt Paula. Despite always being very close to her aunt, she tells Sole that she cannot attend the funeral for being too busy – she knows she needs to focus on protecting her own daughter. She hides the body inside a freezer in a friend’s restaurant. The next day, Sole travels back to the small village for the funeral and eventually sees the ghost of her mother Irene (Carmen Maura). Later that day, back in Madrid, Sole discovers her mother hiding in the trunk of her car and allows her to stay and help with her clandestine hairdressing business. By the end, we get to know the truth about Irene’s murder of her husband and his lover, Paula’s dead father and Raimunda’s hatred for her own mother.
..Volver Trailer © Sony Pictures Classics.
Volver is such a wonderful ode to strong women, their qualities and flaws, their quick wit, their ability to make the most of precarious situations, that it is at times difficult to notice how often they break away from moral norms. Forget, just for an instant, Raimunda’s likely reasons and motivations for doing what she does and take notice of her ethically dubious actions: 1. She hides her husband’s corpse; 2. She does not attend her aunt’s funeral, whom she claims to have loved much; 3. She abuses the trust of her friend and owner of the restaurant; 4. She hides from her daughter the truth about Paula’s father; 5. At the end, it is disclosed that she hated her mother.
A movie which sees the world from such a strong female perspective (isn’t this the point of view of the oppressed?) ought to raise the question of justice. By the end, with its knots all tied, has justice been served? Three people were killed and the culprits are still – and likely to remain so! – free. There’s been an instance of using private premises illegally. Less serious but nonetheless morally dubious behaviour include accepting and conniving with illegal activities, operating a cash-in-hand business and several instances of lying. Some might even argue that the film itself is immoral as it encourages women to deceive in order to stay ahead.
Feminists would argue that by inhabiting a patriarchal world, a woman has already lost her fight before she has a chance to compete on equal terms. Women have no choice but to cheat if they are to have a fraction of a chance to survive in this chauvinist and cruel world. Even though such an assessment might be a fair one, it has an overly restricted focus. This sympathetic perspective not only might miss different factors that contribute towards the exploitation of these characters (such as their social class, their familial history or their personalities), but it also overlooks a greater point: and that is, does a wider justice even matters in this tragic story?
Those who argue that Raimunda should never have hid her husband’s body and instead should have gone to the police and claimed self-defence for her daughter forget that the sexual abuse that she suffered by her own father, resulting in the birth of Paula, was never noticed by her own mother. Why would the police ‘believe’ her now? In fact, as horrendous as it may sound, the concealment of the corpse serves as a necessary rite of passage for Raimunda. The metaphor is indeed apt – as she buries her daughter’s molester she is also burying her dead father; she is burying her past. As the elderly Paula passes away, pubescent Paula is born again from the death of the male oppressor.
Their worrying of and caring for elderly relatives, their dealing with the all-too-often obnoxious sexual abuse, their resilient attitude that faces the world and does everything to look after their children, their white lies uttered in order to protect whoever they love most, these and other traits (morally dubious or not) deserve so much more than pure, cold and impartial justice. Raimunda and Paula, Sole, Irene and Agustina, and all the other women who helped Raimunda in some way, they all deserve this little dose of dubious ‘justice’.
As Almodóvar grows older and more mature, his films become naturally poignant and profound, more relevant and ambiguous – fragments of what real life really is. Volver is exactly this and much more…