Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Volver by Don Pedro from La Mancha

Volver (which means “to return” in Spanish) is exactly that: the return to La Mancha, to the beloved land where the women still dress in the black of mourning, where the dead are watched over in the best and most welcoming room in the house, where the neighbour is one more member of the family and the village, the community always united. Almodovar, in this last work, returns home to this land as if he had never left. He carries it in his heart, in the souls of the characters in all his works, in the colours of the cinematography injected with the director’s rural passion.

Volver delights us with characters which are almost comical for their reality: Agustina (Blanca Portillo), the forgotten villager who has remained in the family home, waiting for a mother who will never return, and who is absorbed with chain smoking joints, unmistakably demonstrates the director’s unflinching humour. Is it the humour typical of Almodóvar or the hidden reality of villages on the Castilian tableau that have been left unchanged, forgotten by progress and lagging behind?

I can’t help recalling the village elders in the film Flowers of Another World by Icíar Bollaín, while they were sitting on the bench in the town square, commenting about the leg length of the Cuban girl who arrived from “an unknown place” disturbing the peace of the place. They were the indefatigable guardians of decorum and custom, the involuntary protagonists of the conflict between ruralism and urbanism.


Sole’s car leaves the countryside behind and, crossing the imaginary frontier delineated by the wind turbines, the sleek substitutes for those mills against which the famous Don Quixote fought, she returns to the hectic and absurdly real life of the capital. The silhouette of those turbines appears on screen each time that the active and lively world of the city gives way to the peaceful yet dead village life. Urbanization against the rustic: the past and the present, two realities, two dimensions which intermingle in the lives of the protagonists, which link together in constant, repetitive comings and goings, revealing the personality of each person, enclosing the secrets and half truths of the village.
 In The Flower of my Secret, Almodóvar already confronted the two worlds: the peacefulness of the village with the chaos of the city reflected at the same time in the main character’s internal turmoil and the calmness regained on feeling like another of the many women seated at the door of the family home. “The sun’s light gleams, the flowers give off their scent… recited Leo Macías’ mother on returning to the village. (Poem: My village written by the director’s mother)
In the Almodóvar’s universe, the way he uses resources available to him, such as the use of windmills as a symbol of change from one world to another, repeats. This is something we have already valued with other elements but with similar results in his other works.In All About My Mother, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia proclaims not only the arrival in the city following an escape from Madrid after the son’s death but also the non-conformism, expressed throughout the film, where the sacred Spanish family unit, the venerated national patriarchy, is shamelessly abandoned in a world in which the two fathers that appear have lost every vestige of their original masculinity and it is the mothers who make the decisions and who fight for their children, who act, wisely or not, for them and who provide for the men who have either stopped being men or who have not yet reached manhood.
The explosion of colour in the photography of the scenes of High Heels, The Flower of my Secret or Kika, amongst others, is once again overwhelming. In the scene with the blood soaked kitchen paper for example, one can find irony in the detail of the line drawings on the sheets of paper and the similarity to certain TV commercials in which two women demonstrate, one with delight and the other with envy, the absorptive properties of the two different brands. Almodovar was the most direct in his gibe against this type of marketing with the advert in which Carmen Maura played the mother of a killer from Vallecas in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The colour stands out, in women’s dresses, in how the houses are decorated and it is emphasised even more in the intrusive arrangement of the sad gowns worn by the women that surround Sole in the scene of the dead aunt’s wake. They all dance in a frame of black heads, in a dance of contrasts, ruralism enveloping bewildered civilisation in the face of ever present superstitions and customs.
The exterior shots of Volver are filmed in Almagro which one sees here as it is, without the adornment of the many actors and fans that it sees during the prestigious International Festival of Classical Theatre for which it is so well known. However one could say that its inhabitants carry the magic of the theatre in their veins, they are like the protagonists of the Greek tragedies, the stereotypes of the flesh and bone of the legends that surround their homes, behind the forged iron grilles over their windows and behind the immaculate white facades. Every woman is like one of the classical heroines, Antigone, Phaedra and Persephone , with a pre-planned destiny; the girl who doesn’t know who her father is and who, by killing will free herself from following the same destiny as her mother who, in turn can’t understand the grandmother who also keeps a terrible blood stained secret. They are real characters, without exaggeration or over the top ornamentation which, while being so real, seem fictitious. Spanish television programs like People, Who has seen it? or In the Morning recount daily episodes that seem even more theatrical that those recounted in the film.
But doesn’t Almodóvar’s cinema follow a fatidic fate? Isn’t it for ever condemned to be meticulously analyzed, accused, defended, discussed and, often, rejected in no end of cruel studies, comparisons and scrutiny? I remember when, as a youngster, I started to hear comments about the vulgarity and the falsehoods reflected in the society portrayed in Pepi, Luci and Bom; The first experiences with drugs and sex, and the apparent intellectual and political apathy which, according to the most traditional
critics, only served to give foreigners a false view of Spanish society during that period.
I was amazed, after seeing the film again some years later, when I saw images of myself, a naïve young girl educated by nuns in a convent school, reflected in some of the scenes of the film! The world of music, sexual inhibition and homosexuality didn’t only exist on the big screen; it was an ironic description of 80’s life in Spanish towns and cities. Since then the director has been criticised from within and admired from without, loved and hated at the same time, but no-one can say that they haven’t, at some stage, been attracted by the scenes, the meticulous details and the charisma of his characters.
In reality Pedro is a writer rather than a director. In a BBC interview (All About Desire), he says that a good director is an artist, a writer, a musician, a lover, a singer, a sex symbol, an architect, a prime minister and a frustrated dictator. He plans to write a novel one day but until then we can enjoy his films through his published film scripts. He also has some short stories such as “La Ceremonia del Espejo” (The mirror ceremony) published in the Spanish weekly El País Semanal on 26th July 1998 or the book “Almodóvar on Almodóvar”, published in London and Boston by Faber and Faber.
His scripts develop slowly and the plot has surprises hidden around every corner. His films need to be viewed more than once in order to assimilate the complexity of the lines and the profundity of the actors’ apparently frivolous jokes. His characters are portraits of almost every face in society from the end of the last century to the beginning of this one: the teenage lesbian, the battered woman, the frustrated masochist, the gay man, the oppressed youth, the knocked back lover, the kind whore, the transsexual fighting to be recognised as a woman, the dangerous introvert, the sexually abused boy, the paedophile priest or dentist, the rent boy and the corrupt police officer.
Although his male characters are by no means simple or lazily developed, his representation of the woman is somewhat more rounded and, supporting this with the multiculturalism that he uses so well, he has portrayed the “femme fatal”, the devoted mother and the rebellious adolescent, as well as the hundreds of different women that are hidden inside every woman.
He is a meticulous observer; he is inspired by his favourite films and his screen idols whose photos he has carefully collected since he was a child. In his scripts one can see the influence of the black cinema and the American melodramas, the 50’s comedies, the Italian costumbrist tragedies and the ever present image of his mother being the rock which would keep his feet firmly on the ground and in touch with his roots.
He leaves nothing to chance in his works, everything says something and it all has a double meaning; for him cinema is a mirror image of the world. He is not afraid to repeat scenes and plots, to return to themes that have already been covered only to develop them with more sophistication. Some of his characters remind us excessively of those we have seen in previous works and some scenes make us ask ourselves about the similarity of the director’s memories to fantasy. He makes use of personal experiences but he distributes them amongst the various characters that are born of his pen. He condemns anything that disgusts him (without doubt the paedophilia and the lack of freedom), he ridicules what he doesn’t like (without looking any further -the TV reality shows), and he promotes the topics that he values (organ donation, increased understanding of those who have HIV/AIDS).
No doubt the illustrious gentleman from La Mancha, will surprise us again in his future works, with his usual crazy stories, as real as ever, or maybe with a novel. Who knows if one day someone will say of him, as was said of Cervantes’ Quixote:
“Yace aquí el hidalgo fuerteque a tanto extremo llegó de valiente, que se advierteque la muerte no triunfó de su vida con su muerte. Tuvo a todo el mundo en poco; fue el espantajo y el cocodel mundo, en tal coyuntura, que acreditó su ventura, morir cuerdo y vivir loco”

(A doughty gentleman lies here; A stranger all his life to fear; Nor in his death could Death prevail, In that last hour, to make him quail. He for the world but little cared; And at his feats the world was scared; A crazy man his life he passed, But in his senses died at last.)

Don Quixote – Cervantes

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