Every time I have worked with [Pedro Almodóvar], I had the impression that I was him, I was portraying him.
“There are so many widows,” observes 14-year-old Paula (Yohana Cobo). As she watches her mother Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) scrub her grandparents’ grave, Paula is being trained up in the art of mourning and remembering. It’s true, according to her Aunt Sole (Lola Dueñas): “The women here live longer than the men.” The camera pans the La Mancha cemetery to show dozens of women in scarves and rubber gloves, tending to their familial stones, sweeping and shining headstones, loading vases with flowers and rocks to hold them still against the wind. It’s what women do in Almodóvar’s Volver.
Raimunda’s family is exceptional here, in that they also mourn her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). She died in her husband’s arms, though the circumstances of this trauma aren’t immediately clear. While Raimunda sees it as a “blessing” that Irene died alongside the man she loved, Sole is less sanguine, more focused on the violent means than the end. Come to find that Raimunda has good reason for her perspective: her husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre), with whom she lives back in Madrid, is a lout, lazy and resentful that his wife isn’t interested in sex with him.
Paco soon suffers his own bloody end for his abuses (Raimundo explains a suspicious splat of blood on her neck as “woman troubles,” and no one questions her further), but the movie is less concerned with death per se than what happens after. This afterlife involves both the living and the seeming dead, as the past shapes the present, flavored equally by guilt, resentment, and expectation.
As Raimundo struggles to support herself and Paula following Paco’s demise, she assumes what seems a conventional woman’s place, unconventionally. When her neighbor leaves her in charge of the restaurant he’s trying to sell, on an impulse, she opens it and begins serving a film crew who happens to be in town, catering their dinners and finding an unexpected outlet for her nurturing disposition (as well as an occasion to sing, tearfully and vibrantly, of the never-over past, her soul “clinging to a sweet memory”).
As she explains Paco’s sudden absence as the result of an argument (“He’s gone, forever,” she tells Sole), Raimundo’s efforts to dispose of the body form a little antic subplot, darkly comic in a Hitchcockian way. At the same time, more funerals loom, first when Irene’s aged sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) passes on, and then again when a longtime family friend and neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), is hospitalized with cancer. The women repeatedly confront and contemplate death, gathering in rituals of grief and affirmation; remembering Tía Paula, a group of black-dressed women gather (the camera overhead as they flutter and loudly kiss-kiss Sole, voices murmuring comfort and fans flapping). They sit in a circle, knee-high stockings peeping from beneath their hems, and listen, rapt, as Agustina tells a ghost story. On the night Paula died, she says, a spirit arrived on her doorstep to announce the old woman’s passing.
Everyone believes the story, heads nodding and faces dramatically lit from below. The women’s only question: was it Paula’s spirit who came to visit, or “the other one”? Soon enough, it’s clear that it was indeed the latter, for Irene appears to Sole, stowed away with a shopping bag in the back of her daughter’s car, after she arrives home in Madrid following Paula’s funeral. Sole, lonely and trusting, doesn’t bat an eye, but invites the ghost — in blue housedress and cardigan — inside.
Sole wonders briefly how long Mama is staying (“As long as God wills, if you don’t mind,” comes the answer, “But for a separated woman, who’s better company than her mother?”), but offers no resistance. She gives Irene the guest room, dyes her hair for her and gets her a pair of sunglasses. Back in the village, Irene sighs, she couldn’t go out for fear of being discovered, but in Madrid, where no one knows her, she expects to live a little. Or whatever ghosts do. Sole sets her up with a new identity, “the Russian,” as well as job: she washes clients hair’ in illegal beauty salon Sole runs out of her apartment.
Sole’s complete acceptance of her guest’s story makes it seem acceptable for the rest of us. Daffy, a stretch certainly, maybe another extra-dimensional leap in a film by Almodóvar, but okay, Irene’s reappearance illustrates the extent of community of women — widows, mothers, and daughters — who populate his universe. At ease with one another, practical-minded, they understand limits and pleasure, and how to make the most of both. Sole is partly glad that Irene has appeared to her and not Raimundo, the vivacious sister with a beautiful daughter and a secret, strained past with her mother. For once, Sole can be at the center of her own life, with the help of her dead mother.
Thus the film conjures several broadly comedic moments, as when Irene hides under the bed, her farts alerting Raimundo to her presence, or what seems to be her memory. The sisters — along with young Paula — laugh tenderly at the recollection, paving the way for Irene’s appearance to Raimundo. She has come back, she explains, to ask forgiveness — the “for what” reframes the women’s multi-generational relationships in a way at once unexpected and inevitable. They live in a world of trauma and dire circumstance, their daily lives filled with tragedy and passion.
The women’s shared and similar experiences draw them together even as they create rifts. Volver, as its title suggests, is full of returns, of emotions and bodies, energies and dilemmas, all them women’s. The most bracing, strange, and provocative aspect of Almodóvar’s movie — aside from Cruz’s much-remarked magnificence — is celebration of women’s self-understanding. Yes, men are brutal and slow, and yes, women tolerate them, even love them. On one level, gender identities and sexual desires are fluid, pulsing, crossing from life into death and back again. On another level, men don’t have a chance. The primary source of “woman troubles,” they are, in the end, also irrelevant to women’s patient, purposeful, and proud survival.