NEW YORK - “Volver,” Pedro Almodovar’s 16th film, was rumored to mark the Spanish director’s long-awaited return to comedy, or at least the dark, unsettling humor of many of the early movies (“Labyrinth of Passion,” “Dark Habits,” “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”) that earned him an international audience.
But although “Volver” does have its share of amusing moments, and is overall lighter in tone than Almodovar’s past few pictures (“Bad Education,” “Talk to Her,” “All About My Mother”), it cannot be labeled as a mere comedy. Like many of the movies he has made throughout his career, but especially true of his output over the past decade, “Volver” (which translates as “To Return”) is too complex and unpredictable to fit into any one genre.
“I know how hard it is to write a synopsis of my movies, especially the more recent ones, because I have to do it myself when I’m putting the press kit together, and it’s almost impossible,” a cheerful, amiable Almodovar said during a recent visit to New York to promote “Volver.”
“With `Volver,’ you could start by saying there’s this beautiful young woman who finds her husband dead in the kitchen and tries to hide the body by stuffing it in a freezer, while at the same time, her mother returns from the dead and moves in with her sister,” he says, chuckling at his own plot summary. “But just that alone makes it sound like a screwball comedy, which is definitely not what `Volver’ is.”
He’s right, of course: `Volver’ is, first and foremost, a movie about mothers and daughters, as well as an homage to the director’s birthplace of La Mancha, the windswept rural region south of Madrid made famous by author Miguel de Cervantes in his novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
The film’s central character is Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), a woman struggling to raise her teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) and save her marriage to a chronically unemployed lout who, 20 minutes into the film, winds up dead and bleeding all over Raimunda’s kitchen floor.
As Raimunda races to hide her husband’s corpse, “Volver” seems to be taking on the overtures of a feminist Hitchcockian thriller. But when Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Duenas) gets a visit from the ghost of their dead mother (Carmen Maura), the movie gradually begins to transform into something entirely different.
For Almodovar, who says he spent nearly five years working on the screenplay for “Volver,” the nugget of the film began in a newspaper report he read while visiting Puerto Rico.
“It was a story about a guy who owned a restaurant who had separated from his wife but was still madly in love with her,” Almodovar says. “Her family had formed a protective wall around her to make sure he couldn’t get near her. So he decided to kill her mother, figuring his wife was sure to attend the funeral, and there he’d be able to see her and tell her that he loved her. So that’s exactly what he did! And, of course, he was arrested at the funeral.”
The story was nutty enough to fit right into the often surreal, highly emotional universe of Almodovar’s films, where HIV-positive nuns, transsexual absent fathers, murderous housewives and lustful serial killers are commonplace. But although the director says he originally envisioned the restaurant owner as the central character in a potential film, that quickly changed when he sat down to write.
“I decided the man would be preparing a trip to commit his crime and would leave the keys to the restaurant with his neighbor, who I already envisioned as a role for Penelope,” he says. “Since I always like to throw obstacles in front of all my characters, I wanted her to be dealing with a really big crisis when her neighbor knocked on her door. And I couldn’t think of anything worse than having her husband lying dead on her kitchen floor.”
From there, Almodovar pushed through with a draft of “Volver” in which Cruz’s character hid her husband’s corpse in a vacant freezer in her neighbor’s restaurant, but was unable to take it out and bury it after she and her neighbors transformed the eatery into a popular nightspot where women cooked, sang and performed theatrical shows for both locals and tourists.
That first draft was already far removed from Almodovar’s initial conceit, closer in theme and subject to his frequent stories of the spiritual bonds between disparate women. It was during his second rewrite that the director first thought about introducing a mother into the plot. At first, he planned to make her the dead husband’s mom, who comes to town worried about her son’s whereabouts. But on a whim, he made her Cruz’s mother instead.
More important, the mother (played in the film by Carmen Maura) would be dead.
“In La Mancha, I grew up listening to people talking about ghosts as if they were real people,” Almodovar says. “I have a tragic perspective on death—I haven’t learned to accept it—but the culture in La Mancha related to death in a very natural way. The dead live among the living there, because people don’t stop talking about them and remembering them. They go to the cemetery to visit the graves of relatives as if they were going to their homes to talk to them. I had heard so many stories of dead mothers who moved in with their daughters, it felt perfectly natural to write my story that way.”
The more Almodovar delved into this new plot strand, the less interested he became in the murder and restaurant angles. “I realized that was the story I wanted to tell: a mother’s reconciliation with her daughters. So I went back to the beginning and rewrote the entire story from that perspective.”
The result is a movie that, while bearing no similarity to its original conception, is yet another deeply personal work, both in locale and themes. “Volver” is Spain’s official entry to the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language Film competition, and it also stands an excellent chance of earning Cruz her first Best Actress nomination, yet another testament to the universality of Almodovar’s stories, which initially seem preposterous and far-fetched, but gradually tap into deeper, more resonant themes.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Almodovar says of his current streak of successes, “but I’ve been especially surprised with the reaction to `Volver’ thus far. I always thought it was a very local movie, taking place in a very small town that no one would care about. But it has been understood everywhere in the world because, I think, because it talks about mothers and daughters, and our need to feel loved by our parents, which is something everyone understands. As long as I can keep doing that, whether intentionally or by accident, I’ll be happy. I just hope I can keep coming up with ideas.”