Friday, December 23, 2011

Movies I Was Supposed To Like More Than I Actually Did, Vol. 1: Volver!

The Good: Decent enough writing, Color contrast, Moments of character
The Bad: Predictable plot, Much of the acting, Quite a bit of exposition
The Basics: With one of my weakest recommendations ever, Volver presents itself as a remarkably average film that beats the viewer over the head with the theme and little else.

Every now and again, a film is strongly recommended to me and I give it a fair viewing based on the strength of that recommendation coming from people whose views and opinions I usually trust and appreciate. In a conversation about actress Penelope Cruz some time ago, a family member strongly recommended Volver. I had gone on about how the star of Woman On Top (reviewed here!) had never truly impressed me, but my family member insisted that I needed to give Volver a fair chance.

It took me four attempts to get through this film. Four tries and to be fair to the movie, the first attempt came when I started watching at night after being a bit exhausted. But considering that two subsequent attempts resulted in a narcoleptic reaction while the sun was shining, I was well-rested and I was eager to be engaged by the film, it is hard to say that this is an engaging film that is worthwhile of the attention of a wide audience. As an avid cinephile, I am embarrassed to say I fell asleep. As a reviewer, I need to mention I fell asleep three times to help people make a good decision about whether or not this film is truly going to be their cup of tea.

Raimunda is going through her routines of working cleaning jobs and spending time with her family and commitments in regard to her aunt and her aunt's friend, Agustina. When her Aunt Paula dies and Raimunda's daughter Paula kills her lecherous husband who is making attempting to rape Paula, Raimunda's life is turned upside down. While she works to keep Paco's body from being found and earn some money by working at an abandoned restaurant for a visiting film crew, Raimunda's sister, Sole, takes in the visiting ghost of their long-dead mother, Irene. While Sole and Irene bond and come to terms with the fallouts of their past, Raimunda works to protect Paula and reinvigorate her life.

As the title of the film suggests, Volver is frequently about cycles, about returns. While there are many intricate meanings of the word, the broadest definition is to return (to a place). Irene returns to her family, throughout the film, Raimunda returns to the river - which has special significance as she tells the story of Paco, her murdered husband -, to Aunt Paula's house, to the abandoned restaurant.

But far more important and germane to the film are the returns on emotions, returns to emotional places. Paula's interrupted assault at the hands to Paco continues a cycle of abuse in the women in Irene's family and in some ways the film fits together too snugly as a result. But more impressively, writer-director Pedro Almodovar works to create and reinforce many such cycles throughout the film. The cycles are not limited to returning to geographical places or familial cycles, but also expanded to have representations of life returning to things forgotten, like Raimunda singing for the first time before her daughter. Almodovar is also more subtle with the namings: Paula being both aunt and daughter creates a strong literary sense of cycles. In other words, it is hard to fault the writing of Volver with the film's problems. This movie has a strong sense of literary development to it and on that front it works rather well.

Moreover, the direction utilizes the script quite well. Volver looks good. As everything from the DVD cover and movie poster illustrates, this is a beautifully filmed movie with amazing color contrast and a richness that creates a more vibrant reality in many scenes than what actually exists in real life.

Unfortunately, once one understands the concept behind Volver, there are no surprises. This is an incredibly predictable film and Almodovar is easily the least subtle director I've witnessed in recent memory. So, for example, Paula - Raimunda's daughter - sits in a miniskirt and tights straddling a chair with her legs wide open and Paco notices. From the angle Paco is at on the couch, he finds himself looking straight at the girl's crotch and director Almodovar establishes a shot from Paco's perspective that clearly states exactly what he is seeing and it is not hard to understand - even with only moments of screentime preceding the shot - exactly what Paco's thoughts are. Not content with that obvious bit of showing, Almodovar includes a second shot that has Paco peeking in on Paula changing and for those not whacked over the head with Paco lusting after his daughter, him ogling her sideboob makes it undeniable.

This is not a subtle film and after being beaten over the head with showing the examples of Paco's lusty feelings for his daughter, the film rapidly degenerates into a series of long exposition scenes where the backstory of Raimunda, Sole, Irene and Agustina are simply told. Yes, perhaps part of the problem with Volver, whether one is listening to it in Spanish or reading the English subtitles, is that much of the movie becomes people sitting around telling stories that are similar to the current storyline. The return of circumstances that affect the protagonists is obvious and overdone. By the middle of the film, viewers are begging for a flashback where the story being told is shown rather than told and we'd accept even Almodovar's "whack you over the head" obvious style just to see something other than vibrantly colored people sitting around telling one another their histories.

Volver becomes plot-obsessed with characters filling in stories that all relate to the theme and title. The unresolved relationship between Raimunda and the grip who arranges for her to feed the film crew might work fine to add flavor and something of reality that is not necessarily directly related to the theme, save that there is also the unresolved aspect of the restaurant. What becomes of that seems more problematic when paired with another unresolved plotline. In a film that is so heavy on making its point and illustrating the concept it seeks to portray, it becomes problematic to have too many unresolved plot issues.

Sadly, the characters suffer outside the plot. All of the characterization of Raimunda and Irene is used to reinforce the plot and themes, especially as they relate to the title. The film is entirely lacking in character idiosyncrasies that do anything other than promote or expand upon the idea that there are cycles in families and individual lives.

As a result of the characterization for plot's sake, many of the actors are given less to do and turn in performances that are less inspired than one might hope. Yohana Cobo has quite a bit of time on screen as Paula, but her role relegates her quite frequently to wallflower, an accessory to Penelope Cruz's Raimunda. She is dragged along awkwardly delivering her few lines with little zest, passion or reality.

Even Penelope Cruz gives a performance that is nothing new or exciting. Cruz - in the few films I have seen her in - has a surprisingly passionless affect. Indeed, she emoted more vibrantly in the kitschy "Bandidas" than in Volver. Never one to defend blandness in performance, it is difficult to see what the fuss was about Cruz's portrayal in this particular movie.

The best moments on the acting front come from Lola Deunas. Duenas has a wide-eyed affect and a more subtle delivery to some of her lines that actually creates a layered character. Watching her on screen, there is some sense to her portrayal that there is more going on with her character than just what we see and that serves her and the film better than any of the other performances.

On DVD, Volver has a commentary track, interviews with Cruz, Almodovar and others, as well as theatrical trailers. This is not the most inspired collection of bonus features, but it is adequate for the drama and those who enjoy the film are likely to get more out of the extras. Unfortunately, that wasn't me, at least not as much as I wanted it to be.

Ultimately, I opt for a very soft "recommend" for Volver, but it is strictly a viewing recommendation. I do not see why one would want to purchase Volver and add it to their permanent collection. It is not of that caliber, but it might be worth the viewing, at least for the writing. Or as a sleep aid.

For other foreign films, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Road Home
Strawberry And Chocolate
Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Index Page!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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