It is not hyperbolic to state that the men in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver are assholes. Or to be more specific, the men in Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her sister Sole’s life are assholes. In the limited time the men are mentioned or on screen, they are abusive, leering and philandering, and their behaviour sets off the chain of events for this movie.
Raimunda and Sole (Lola Dueñas) live in Madrid and have a complicated relationship with their late parents who died in a house fire. They are now dealing with the gradual demise of their aunt who lives in their old village, Alcanfor de las Infantasin La Mancha, Spain. There are numerous but cheerful references to the villagers’ superstitions and these throwaway remarks foreshadow parts of the movie to come.
When Raimunda learns that her husband tried to rape her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), she does what is needed to protect Paula. Meanwhile, Sole has her own set of issues because she keeps encountering her dead mother, who has returned to deal with unresolved issues. If Sole could break the fourth wall, this is when she would tell viewers that volver means ‘to return’ so we should not be too surprised.
Is this a movie about the supernatural? Not as much as it’s about family and a network of women living in a feminised world where telenovelas, haircuts and bargains are just facts of life.
Raimunda is the epicentre of the movie, with her resilience, stoicism and concern for others. Occasionally, when she does not have to think of her role as mother, sister, daughter, friend or niece, she does something just for herself, like sing a song from her childhood, and we see her expressions as she is transported elsewhere.
When her restaurateur neighbour retires, she covertly uses his place to cook a three-course meal which includes Pisto Manchego and Tortilla Española for a film crew. This turns out to be a hit and the crew return for their wrap party. Raimunda suddenly finds herself in the restaurant business and she co-opts her friends by paying them more than their asking price for biscuits and produce. People are energised and think about making different desserts and serving up potent mojitos. They jostle for the role of bartender and tell Raimunda how they can make the place lively. Their interactions are delightful, unpretentious, and it’s no surprise that the 2006 Cannes Film Festival jurors presented the best actress prize to not one, but the entire female cast of Volver.
Raimunda serves homely, localised Spanish fare in a restaurant that is cosy and crowded. There is no place for small portions of fine-dining food here. The portrayal of dishes in this movie is also not a coincidence. La Mancha is director Almodóvar’s birthplace and the origin of the stew (or dip) Pisto Manchego. This dish is sometimes referred to as Spain’s version of ratatouille and is a great accompaniment to Tortilla Española or slathered on bread.
Food is used very symbolically. Raimunda’s accidental role as chef is a sign of her financial independence and emotional recovery. Initially, she was asked to cook for the film crew’s sustenance. Later, when effectively asked to throw them a party, she went all out. She put aside her troubles, got dressed up and convinced her daughter to also participate. I know you don’t want to, she tells her grieving daughter. But it’s work.
When Raimunda and Sole visit their aunt in the village, she gives them Tupperware containers full of wafers and biscuits. The aunt has dementia, so it surprises them to see her coping well enough to stock her pantry. The neighbours tell Sole it’s because her dead mother has been taking care of their aunt, including cooking and putting money out for people to deliver bread. Even in the afterlife, the women of Alcanfor de las Infantas are still cooking and nurturing, a fact that does not seem to surprise anyone.
In one of the poignant moments of the movie, all the women in the family gather at their aunt’s house to cook a meal in an attempt at reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be nice if our dead aunt could see us now, they sigh. Given what we know about the co-mingling of the living and the dead, this would not be too far-fetched.
It is satisfying to see Cruz team up with Almodóvar again where she could show her range of acting capabilities. In many of her English-speaking roles in Hollywood, she is typecast as the sultry, passionate temptress including her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona that won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In Volver, there are still references to her looks, particularly a notable scene where the overhead camera frames her cleavage as she cleans a bloodstained knife in the sink. The women in her life also make off-colour remarks about her body, but the difference is you feel as if Cruz is in on the joke.
Watch Volver at SBS On Demand
Accompany it with Pisto Manchego
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