The first time I watched Penélope Cruz lip-sync “Volver,” the old song that lends its sentiments and title to Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, I wept–though why, I couldn’t have said. The voice was dubbed; the musical idiom had been shifted, with Spanish imperiousness, from tango to flamenco; and the character’s deepest motivations could only be guessed at, since Almodóvar was waiting for the final reel to reveal them. As perfect moments go, this one was odd and incomplete; and yet, when a plump droplet spilled across Cruz’s eyelashes, tears came to me, too.
The next time, of course, I was prepared. Now every implication of the scene was known; every seam of Almodóvar’s narrative stitchery had been exposed. I wept even more, as the title might have foretold. Volver: to return. All the emotions came back.
What else returns in this beautifully improbable movie? The list might begin with an actress, Carmen Maura, who is closely identified with Almodóvar but had long been absent from his films. Next comes the character Maura plays: a ghostly mother who reinserts herself into her family’s affairs, while giving off (despite death) the flatulent scent of life. Then there’s a repeated wrong. Years ago, Maura’s character unwittingly harmed her daughter (Cruz), who now has done much the same to her own teenage child (the indelible Yohana Cobo). Like the wind-powered turbines you periodically see in this movie–the characters having come from a town of incessant gales, which are said to drive people crazy–the story keeps spinning back to these recurring elements, and more: a scuffed suitcase, a native landscape, a good deed, a corpse.
Memories of older films return as well, as they often do in Almodóvar’s work. They are for him what biblical texts used to be for English poets: basic materials of thought. And so in Volver he imitates a bit of Psycho here, some Mildred Pierce there, to articulate his ideas. If I had to explain the themes in general terms, I’d say they concern the sin of not seeing what’s before your eyes. Volver is about invisibility as a just punishment for this sin; about the false visibility, or self-exposure, promoted by a degraded form of show business; and about the revelations made possible, by contrast, through a true performance, which can be public and personal at the same time. Most of all, though, Volver is an exciting crime story, comedy and tear-jerker about the ways these themes may loop back through generations of women.
Which just goes to show you: To explain Volver in general is to explain nothing at all. That’s why Almodóvar needs his scriptures, including (most significantly) a clip from Visconti’s Bellissima. A segment of that film, appearing late in Volver, encapsulates the events as no synopsis could. It also transforms Cruz retrospectively into another example of something that returns. Implicitly, the excerpt makes her a double of Bellissima‘s star, Anna Magnani.
As types, the two are not much alike, except for their swarming heaps of dark hair. Cruz pokes skyward instead of pulling toward the earth; she lingers over her emotions, nestling them within, rather than hurling them out impatiently. Whereas Magnani instinctively, famously, shouted for help, Cruz is capable of suffering in silence. But as Almodóvar knows, his star can stride through a working-class district with all the authority of her predecessor. She, too, can seem to carry in her limbs the weight of a long day’s labor. And if her body is too finely drawn to be entirely convincing in her present role–“These characters are always big-assed women,” Almodóvar has written, “and Penélope is too slim”–a loving director knows how to show off what flesh there is. In an early shot that summarizes much in Volver and foreshadows more, Almodóvar photographs Cruz from directly above, so that the perspective lines run down the inner surface of her breasts into the profound shadows of a cleavage that the costumer keeps perpetually exposed. The character is standing at a kitchen sink, stoically washing the evening’s dishes, while you gaze over this site of troubled, uncontainable sexuality, looking down toward the object at the vanishing point: a very large, very sharp knife, which will only temporarily remain clean.
Of course, any dramatist can bring out a knife in act one. But once the knife has been used, it takes an Almodóvar to blend realism instantaneously into melodrama, and melodrama into a moment of comic relief that’s cutting in its own right. First Cruz’s character feels the full moral gravity of her situation; then, though worn out by a day on the job, she has to set to work again with mop and rubber gloves. When interrupted at her grim task by a knock on the door, she next must hold off a friendly but inquisitive neighbor. “Did you hurt yourself?” he asks solicitously, having noticed a splash of blood on her neck. Fortunately, Cruz knows what makes men look away. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she explains, “Female trouble.”
I give away this joke–and only this one, I promise–because it so neatly demonstrates the superiority of Volver‘s women to its men. For a long while, in fact, you might imagine there aren’t any men, but only one man here, another there. Taken singly, they’re pretty bad, or weakly good. Viewed in a cluster–as they’re seen, I think, only once–they can literally make a character gasp.
The women, by contrast, are almost always shown in a group: organizing meals, doing one another’s hair, exchanging stories, giving or receiving aid. Much of the buoyancy and humor of Volver comes from this female conviviality–as when, for example, Cruz abruptly goes into the restaurant business and elicits impromptu help from half her neighborhood. Even the ghostly mother wants to be sociable–which is why she gets rid of her veil of loose white hair, so she will no longer look like one of Mizoguchi’s spirits dressed in a cheap housecoat. Some of Volver‘s biggest laughs come from Maura’s down-to-earth manner, as she overcomes the indignities involved in rejoining human company. (When put in a tight spot, she can’t just vanish, as a normal ghost would. She needs to duck under the bed, with the smile of a kid playing hide-and-seek.) At the end, though, when she once more returns to her solitude–or almost goes back to it–the sweetness of Maura’s resignation gives the film its deepest pathos.
For that final return, Maura steps back into a region of timelessness–someplace that’s separate from her daughter’s world of bustle and worry (“I’m busy,” Cruz continually complains) but is different as well from the conventional image of eternity. The film starts in a small-town cemetery, where women are busy cleaning the tombs. It concludes within the shadows of an old provincial house, where Maura will tend not a slab of marble but another woman’s body and spirit. Sociability and hope win out in Volver over solitude and despair–tentatively, just a little–if only because “ghosts aren’t supposed to cry.”
The living may weep, though–which brings me back to that core scene in which Cruz performs the title song. I think “perform” is the right word, even though you hear someone else’s voice, because Cruz makes her whole face sing: “Though time’s passing, which wipes away the whole world/ By now has killed off my oldest, dearest dreams/Still I hold within me, hidden like a treasure/Just the simple hope to come back home.”
Why is she crying out these lines, and crying over them? On the public level, she is thanking the patrons of her restaurant, and maybe showing off a little for them. More privately, she sings because her mother, who’s been lost, taught her “Volver” many years ago, and now she wants to give this song to her own daughter, who came close to being lost.
Cruz sings in two directions at once, to the past and the future, weeping for both. And if on first viewing you don’t fully understand why she feels as she does, you weep for her anyway, just because she’s there, in the present, alive. You, as her audience, help to make her so.
As many critics have pointed out, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is both a World War II epic and a pressing, critical commentary on today’s events. Soon, I hope, I will have something to add to the discussion of this picture. For now, though, I feel it’s more urgent that I tell you about James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, a nonfiction film that addresses contemporary reality without metaphor and yet is every bit as artful as Eastwood’s movie.
It is practically handmade: produced, researched and shot in Iraq from 2003 through 2005 by Longley himself, who recorded both image and sound. He also edited the material (with Billy McMillin and Fiona Otway) and composed his own musique concrète for the soundtrack. The result, as you see from the start, is perhaps less a document than an impression, conveyed through partial glances, stream-of-consciousness juxtapositions, unpredictable rhythms, a collage of sound. Without apology, Longley offers you his fractured, subjective view of Iraq under US occupation. What justifies the film, and makes it compelling, is the corresponding subjectivity of its Iraqi narrators, who lend this movie not only their voices but their eyes and ears.
Part one, set in a poor Sunni quarter of Baghdad, focuses on a fatherless 11-year-old, Mohammed Haithem, who was working in an auto-repair shop and flunking out of school for the third or fourth time. As Mohammed had come to fear his native city–which used to be beautiful, he said, but now was full of helicopters and tanks–so too did he cringe before his boss. “He loves me like a son,” Mohammed insists on the soundtrack. “He doesn’t swear at me or hit me.” At which point, you see the perpetually simmering, impecunious “father” strike Mohammed while shouting abuse at him for his tears.
Part two looks at the Shiite south through the eyes of Sheik Aws al-Kafaji, a cleric in Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement. But in this section, Iraq in Fragments also goes beyond the individual viewpoint and becomes a film of masses: flagellants in a procession, protesters at a rally, vigilantes carrying out a punitive raid against liquor sellers. The sporadic, personalized violence of part one gives way to something seething, generalized, apocalyptic.
Part three moves north into a Kurdish farming area, where you again listen to a young boy. Unlike his counterpart in the first section, he can dream of attending medical school; and his elders speak of independence. At last you hear a note of hope–and yet the smoke billowing from nearby brick kilns reminds you of smoke you saw earlier, rising from the explosions in Baghdad.
No truth about the war can be found in Iraq in Fragments. Longley discovers only truths–in individuals, in masses of people, in landscapes–that fit together provisionally, if at all. That is the heartbreaking lesson of Iraq in Fragments, and its indispensable art.