by RISHI AGRAWAL
Let me first be up front about one thing. I do not like Pedro Almodóvar. I have not seen Talk to Her, a film that many consider to be Almodóvar’s best. But, at least ten years ago I did see Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I also saw All About My Mother in the theater. I don’t remember much about either film except for the fact that I hated both of them. However, I had heard that Volver was a very good film, and I have been known to change my mind about filmmakers before. I figured, after seven years, it was time to give Pedro another chance.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) are sisters from Madrid who occasionally return to their birth town, La Mancha, in order to visit their aunt and their friend Agustina (Blanca Portilla). Raimunda is married to a no-good husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and has a teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Meanwhile, Raimunda and Sole’s mother’s ghost returns (Carmen Maura) and provides most of the catalyst for the plot.
The tone of the film moves between humor and drama, though neither mode is particularly compelling. The humor mostly derives from the fact that people make mean and vindictive comments, either directly to people’s faces or behind their backs. Though I have no problem with cynicism or mean-spiritedness, all it does in this film is make every character seem somewhat generic. The main characters have tiny bits of personality that seem to be their own, but, overall, they are obviously spitting out written dialogue. At times the dialogue gets overtly expository, once again making the viewer painfully aware of how fabricated the characters really are.
The drama follows the same note, where every character occasionally says something profound or moving. Perhaps Almodóvar was trying to insert a little bit of complexity in his characters: they can by vicious, tender, and wise at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, when every character has the same mix of emotions stirring inside, you wonder how genuine the emotions really are.
And the drama isn’t particularly compelling either. I always hesitate to call a movie predictable, because different people have different levels of precognition when it comes to film. Just because one person sees a particular plot twist developing does not mean there will not be others who are thrown for a loop. I won’t go so far as to say that the entire plot of this movie is predictable. The plot does occasionally go in interesting directions. The problem is that Almodóvar sets up the story so carefully and deliberately that we see what is happening long before the dramatic “twist” is revealed. In one scene fairly early in the movie, Raimunda is returning home from work and finds that Paula has met her at the bus stop, obviously upset about something. From the previous scenes with Paula, we can readily determine what Paula is upset about, and yet the scene seems interminable. When we are finally told what has occurred, it is more of a relief than a revelation.
Another subplot involving Agustina seems completely unnecessary. We find out that Agustina’s mother disappeared on the same night that Raimunda and Sole’s parents died in a fire. Agustina is desperate to find out what happened, though the truth is obvious to everyone but the characters. In one bewildering scene, Agustina appears on television to talk about her mother. This was obviously set up to be a big, dramatic moment. Unfortunately, the scene is so incongruous that is more confusing than dramatic.
I could go on and on about what I didn’t like about the film: the visual look of the film, the awkward camera angles, the hokey moments that were probably not meant to be hokey. However, I will admit there was something to the movie. The acting, all around, was good. Cruz deserves the accolades that she received for her role.
And the most surprising thing of all was that despite all the movie’s flaws, I still found myself caught up in the story. Sure, all the characters seemed kind of the same to me, but that generic character was actually kind of interesting. The humor wasn’t character-driven, but I will admit, there were some very funny moments. Plus, underneath everything, there were a few genuinely moving scenes. We have a decent story about a family of women who have had bad luck with men and bad luck with their lives, but still can depend on each other.
This is not going to be a story of my own redemption, about how I finally learned to love Almodóvar. I still have serious problems with his technique. But, for the first time, I pushed aside my instincts and let myself get caught up in the story rather than Almodóvar’s bad technique. And, though I still didn’t like the film, I at least caught a glimpse of what so many others love about his work.
2 1/2 stars