Saturday, 24 February 2007

Volver (2006)

Look who's hiding under the bed!

There must be 2 Pedro Almodovars. One of them makes films with shocking, scandalising topics - sexual abuse by priests, transvestism, homosexuality, murder and shocking family secrets (Bad Education, What Have I Done to Deserve This, Matador) - and the other makes sensitive and mature films about women (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, The Flower of My Secret). But they're both the same Pedro Almodovar, the one who delights in confounding audiences and critics desperate to nail him down to a single genre or type of film. With Volver, the director returns to his second style of filmmaker, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Witness the opening scene of the movie. The camera pans from right to left to show a family - a mother, her sister and her daughter, visiting and cleaning the grave of her mother in their ancestral village. The contrary movement of the camera points to the nostalgic, retrograde movement in the mind of the director, and also illustrates the meaning of the Spanish word Volver: to return. And returning to the happy family scene, they are joined by their aunt, who visits their mother's grave, as well as to clean up her own. Apparently in some parts of Spain, you can book your grave years in advance, and most people will tend their own gravemarkers during annual visits. It's very much like how my extended family celebrates Qing Ming, actually. We go to the graves of my grandmother and her brothers, clean up their markers, replace the flowers, and tidy up the spots that we've booked in advance so that in death, we'd still be close to each other. And of course, sometimes we address the person's photo on the tomb and speak lovingly to them. In all this is a mode of relating to the dead and the past as something benign, and intimately familiar, a charmingly off-centre (to modern eyes anyway) worldview that marks Volver as one of the oddest, yet most moving films of Pedro Almodovar.

It's not that odd when we figure that Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her sister Sole (Lola Duenhas) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) hail from a small village, the type where everyone knows each other, keep no secrets, and have very quaint traditions and folksy beliefs that would be entirely strange and alien if not for the fact that they sound very Chinese. For these villagers, death is not marked by an afterlife destined for either the fiery furnaces of Hell or the heavenly choirs of Heaven. What do dead people do in rural Spain? Everyone believes they sort of hang around in the house, keeping watch over their relatives. And everyone in the village believes that they've seen Raimunda's mother Irene at their old house - even the dotty aunt claims to speak with her on a daily basis. Of course, when the dotty aunt passes on, Irene decides to stay over with Paula and improve her frosty relationship with Raimunda.

We gather that like most Asian families, there is a series of deep secrets and grey lies everyone's been keeping from everyone, and Almodovar uses Irene's return, as well as Raimunda's accidental murder of her good-for-nothing husband and her attempts to hide his body in a restaurant to peel away, one layer at a time, the secrets women keep from one another. Unlike his previous Bad Education, where one could sense the director's seething anger at Catholic church and its priests, Almodovar's love for women plainly shows through the sympathetic handling of the two storylines involving Raimunda and Irene. To tell you what happens would be to give away much of the story, which is more charming if you watch it unfold by yourself, but it suffices to say that Volver is a sentimental tribute to the power of women (there are no male characters of note in this movie). Irene's ghost story, Raimunda's murder thriller, and the story of ancient family secrets are wistful, bittersweet, and best of all, humorous.

Local moviegoers might have a bonus laugh if they recognise how Almodovar turns the J-horror genre on its own head, by adhering to its rules and subverting them at the same time!

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

No comments: