“In a place in La Mancha, whose name I don’t wish to remember, not long ago lived a gentleman…” a gentleman of revolutionary art and innovative cinema, a gentleman armed with a camera.
It’s not the first time that Almodóvar has immersed us in a world that, through being so real, seems unbelievable. In his other works, he has led us to the most marginal settings, which through his twisted scripts, full of his characteristic humour, he describes to us in minute detail, details that have on many occasions made him the centre of the biggest scandals. Without any need to look further – his film Bad Education (2004) which, poetically talks about the risqué subject of paedophilia in the Catholic Church, was strongly attacked in France and in certain circles not only in Spain but also throughout Europe. It is worth adding that the fact that the director drew disapproval from the Spanish Popular Party and its sympathisers (practically 50% of the population) around the same time as the film’s premiere on the 18th March 2004, for making public comments about the rumour of a possible military coup planned by the very same Party didn’t help the film’s debut, leading the director to declare that often he feels more accepted and understood in other countries.
Even so, Almodóvar is used to the criticism and he wears it smartly and modestly during his interviews and public appearances. His first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom (Figaro Films SA 1980), hit the boxoffice with an overwhelming force. The lack of budget was more than compensated for by the intense irony of the script which attracted even the most disparaging people. It was the debut of Alaska, the half Punk, half Goth singer who, even at the age of 15, sickened most parents and grandparents of the era, in a Spain that was only recently freed from an oppressive dictatorship and little used to excesses such as the scene where the sadomasochistic housewife was urinated on (Eva Silva/ Anna) which, incidentally, caused more than one person to turn away in disgust.
It is already well known that, during the Oscars of 2007, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth monopolized the well deserved attention that many believed would again fall on the director from La Mancha. Volver therefore failed to earn its creator his third Oscar (the first one, for the Best Foreign Film, went to All about my Mother in 2002, and the second, for the Best Original Script, for Talk to Her, in 2003, a film that was, in its day, nominated for 7 Academy Awards including the Best Film and Best Director). But Volver didn’t arrive and left the cinemas modestly. Since its premiere on the 17th March 2006, it has won, amongst others, the prize for the Best Film in a Foreign Language, awarded during the London Film Critics Circle Awards on 9th February 2007 and 5 Goya prizes.
The film has already been released worldwide on DVD, enabling us to enjoy it at great length, to rewind and rewatch the scenes that we like most over and over again and to delight in the minutest details, which as always are so meticulously taken care of by Almodóvar, from the warmth of our own sofas. Volver has also given a final push to the top to the already successful Penélope Cruz. In Spain and abroad, everyone admires the talent of the well experienced dark-haired actress who, thanks to the artistic vision of the director and the special relationship which exists between them, has won the most important cinematographic prizes. It is thanks to this work that Penélope now elegantly parades along Hollywood’s famous red carpet. In the celebrity gossip programs broadcast by Spanish television channels they avidly criticise her for her poor choice of wardrobe but the truth is that she shines as brilliantly as any of the many celluloid stars who exhibit themselves in the capital of the film world before the prize giving.
Her image is much more sophisticated than that of Raimunda, the Vallecas housewife with the unkempt bun and big behind (the actress had to sport a false backside), who was the protagonist in Pedro’s film. Penélope says the role has made her feel that she has achieved what she wanted from her career, that she has bettered herself and that Almodóvar is her favourite director. With Volver she has become the first Spanish woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, competing with names such as Judi Dench, Hellen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet. Needless to say, she is unique in her role of a mother who takes on everything to defend her daughter and comes out on top. Once again a stereotype of today’s society that Almodovar analyses to the core allowing us to see, through the eyes of the actress, the pain of a terrible secret, the determination of a fighter and the bitterness of a cheated daughter. Estrella Morente, accompanied on guitar by Montoyita, lends her voice to the exceptional performance of the song that gives its name to the film’s title. The spectator is tricked into believing that Cruz not only acts but
sings as well during a mimed scene in which the real star is the almost vulgar beauty of Raimunda. Inside she is Dulcinea; outside she is the roughly beautiful Aldonza del Toboso.
I personally was lucky to see the film on the final day of its showing in London, smack bang in the centre of the capital, in the iconic Covent Garden. How impressive it was to leave behind the cold, empty streets of the town of La Mancha and step out into the hubbub around the clubs and theatres of London’s West End. What an infuriating contrast between the lively chatter and excitement of the characters and the restrained British accents of the cinema-goers. Once again, Almodóvar leaves me doubting that he will be able to surpass himself in his next work, a doubt that wells up in me every time I see a new production of his. It happened to me in the past with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) where the artificial naturalness of Carmen Maura fascinated me from the very first scene; with High Heels (1990) in which an almost unrecognisable Miguel Bosé gave me goose bumps during the daring dressing room scene and with Kika (1993) in the scene with the interminable rape which I must confess made me hate the director. His satirical humour as well as his, in my opinion, disrespect for women disgusted me so much that I vowed never to see another of his films. A promise that I broke shortly after when The Flower of my Secret (1995) premiered and I once again became faithful to my favourite director with All about my Mother, Talk to her and Bad Education. Time and time again he hypnotised me with his portraits of the abandoned and desperate woman, the mother who loses her son in a fatal traffic accident, the male nurse who, once again offending my sensibility as a dedicated feminist, falls in love with, and finally rapes, the young woman he was nursing.
Of course it was my intention to get an interview with Pedro but they tell me that he is too busy, that he is completely snowed under working on his next script. My curiosity overpowers my discretion and it occurs to me that, maybe, he could talk to me about his upcoming projects but I resign to immerse myself in his world of dreams, memories and ghosts. And talking of ghosts, one of the main characters in the film is one – the mother – who, incidentally, was played immaculately by a toned down Carmen Maura,
complete with grey hair, bad colouring, and softened with wrinkles which, she confesses, are not artificial, the only make up being a bit of soap and water.
Fleetingly it occurs to me that the reappearance of the loved one who has already gone reminds me of the Latin American novels such as Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel or The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende – but this certainly isn’t his style! And the thing is: the strange ghost who, very originally appears from the bonnet of the car, arrives with more than a surprise in her suitcase! A mother that has returned to care for her daughter smacks of Latin American Magical Realitism and is far from the director’s usual critical and humoristic style, remote from the melodramatic scenes that we are used to. I think that maybe this time, Pedro surprises us when he dares to address this supernatural touch that is so characteristic at the other side of the Ocean. But as the drama unfolds, I prepare myself for the final surprise – the mystery that the characters know so well how to keep hold of until the very last moment.