Sunday, July 25, 2010

Volver -- family secrets, pivotal returns

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2006. (R)

Volver is a Spanish verb meaning to return. Almodóvar's Volver focuses on a return of sorts. And Almodóvar himself returns to the theme of strong women surviving without men. As in many of his films, such as All About My Mother or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, men have little or no roles. Here only Paco is prominent, albeit briefly but in a plot-centric way.

Almodóvar returns also to zany comedy after a string of dramas, including his Oscar-winner Talk to Her. Volver is full of rapid-fire one-liners that require a second viewing to fully enjoy It is not a deep or spiritual film, but its themes of female strength, family secrets and pivotal returns underscore the value of further scrutiny.

Penelope Cruz (Elegy), who has worked with Almodóvar several times (All About My Mother, Broken Embraces) plays Raimundo, the central figure. As the film opens, Raimundo, her teenaged daughter Paula (Yohanna Cobo) and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) have driven from Madrid to their childhood village of La Mancha, to visit the grave of their mother. Seeing them, and many other women, cleaning graves, Almodóvar underscores female survival. But this is a traditional and superstitious village. And when these three ladies visit Aunt Paula, the elderly and senile aunt who raised Raimundo after the death of her parents, Aunt Paula makes this clear. As she babbles, not recognizing Sole, she tells Raimundo that her dead mother is actually living with her and taking care of her.

Cruz inhabits this role and brings it to life with verve and vibrancy, sensitivity and soul. She deservedly earned an Oscar nomination. Indeed, she became the first Spanish woman ever to be nominated for Best Actress (and later won for her role in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona). But Almodovar seems to pull great performances out of his actresses, and Cobo and Duenas are no exceptions. Couple these with Carmen Maura, as Irene the long-dead mother, and this is a quartet of Spanish actresses that carry the film.

Back in Madrid, Paco tells Raimundo that he was fired. She has to take on yet another job to support the family. Unlike Sole, who works clandestinely as a hairdresser in her own home, Raimundo works long-hours legally to bring food home.

Raimundo's character and strength present a vivid picture of the Proverbs 31 woman: "She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family" (v.15). "She sets about her work vigorously" (v.17) and we see this when an incident occurs at home. When she finds an opportunity to make some money in a local restaurant, "She sees that her trading is profitable" (v.18). Truly, "she is clothed with strength and dignity" (v.25). "She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness" (v.27). The writer of this proverb summarizes the value of this kind of woman, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised" (v.30).

Death surfaces in this upbeat film. Aunt Paula passes away. But at a most inconvenient time. And Raimundo cannot attend the funeral. Sole goes solo to the wake hosted by family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). When she returns she brings more than she knows. And with her comes a whole set of questions that turn the film into a suspenseful farce. When Agustina herself becomes ill, she calls on both sisters to uncover some family secrets and discover truth long buried.

Volver highlights the fact that families often keep secrets, burying them under layers of distortions and lies. As children we believe what we are told by our parents or guardians. Later we may unearth the truth, and these secrets may be shocking. We often know more about the upbringings of our friends and co-workers than that of our own parents. We may ask ours, if they are still alive only to be put off with vague answers or smokescreens. But the truth might just be more than we can handle, as it is here, for Raimundo. The secrets from her past shock her to the core. Once they see the light of day, they can never be hidden again. Some secrets may be better left unrevealed. As Paco found out, some should simply be buried.

The revelation of the secret is connected to volver, the return of a long-lost character. This reminds us of the book of Revelation which focuses on the return of another long-lost character: the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 19:11-16). His return will bring to light family secrets: the secrets of sin and salvation (Matt. 25:31-48). Whether we like it or not, at his return we will come face-to-face with the reality of sin. Those who are not followers of Jesus will see him in his glory and holiness and realize their own unholiness, like Isaiah did in the presence of God Almighty (Isa. 6:5). Sin has a way of seeping into our souls and distorting our vision until we fail to see it. But when the Light comes the shadows and darkness become evident. The return of Jesus will usher in the separation of those who are his and are written in the book of life (Rev. 21:27), and those who are not and are destined for the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). Salvation and redemption only come to those who prove faithful to Jesus, the returning King.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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