‘Your town,’ the TV presenter says to her guest on a live talk show, ‘has the highest incidence of insanity in the whole of Spain. Do you think this fact explains the story you are about to tell us?’ The guest, as it happens, isn’t about to tell a story at all, since she suddenly decides not to spill her local beans and walks off the set. But we’re already laughing at the mock sociology of the question, and since it occurs about two-thirds of the way through Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, Volver, we know better than to take it as mere filling, or even as offering any sort of information. First, because there are probably any number of towns in Spain that could compete for the title; and second, because we don’t want to align ourselves with the presenter’s smug rationality. But do we want to align ourselves with superstition?
It’s a long way from Buñuel to Almodóvar, but I thought of Buñuel several times as I watched this film. Both directors are interested in an idea of Spain, which they see as a place caught between myth and history, or more precisely as a country trying to enter history without fully taking the measure of myth. In Viridiana the progressive projects of Don Jaime’s nephew are as abstract and fantastic as the heroine’s charity, in or out of the convent. Buñuel thinks the myths – the love of death, the lure of the past, the dream of purity – have to be exorcised before anything can happen, and ignoring them is as bad as caressing them. Almodóvar is more genial, and believes the myths may respond to friendly mockery, and could even be got to do a little work. At a wake in Volver a crowd of women hover round a young woman, who is disturbed by the sheer clustering energy of this traditional presence. A high-angle shot makes them look like a tight geometrical pattern, or a wheel, society as a repetitive machine. For a moment what flickers here is the shade not of Buñuel but of Lorca, and specifically The House of Bernarda Alba, a play in which matriarchy is an image of Spain itself. Then the gloom and anxiety are dispersed, but the national story on offer in these works does seem to be all about somebody’s mother, or mother superior.
The story the guest nearly tells, and that we have already learned from the movie, concerns the interesting double meaning of the title: ‘to return’, meaning both to go back, as a person does who needs to revisit her past, and to come back, as a ghost does who arrives to haunt the present. The title also sounds as if it might be the name of a sentimental song, and it is; sung by Estrella Morente and mimed by Penelope Cruz in the middle of the story. ‘Ghosts don’t cry’ are almost the last words of the film, and a lot of its delicately kitschy and genuinely moving implications are in the idea. Ghosts don’t cry because they can’t. Because they don’t need to. Because they don’t exist. Ghosts don’t cry but they should.
The film opens with a wonderful scene in a provincial cemetery. Bright sunlight, high wind. Cheerful choral tune on the soundtrack. A group of women, whom we soon discover to be Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her sister Sole and Raimunda’s daughter Paula, are cleaning a large tomb, scraping off leaves and dirt, scrubbing and polishing. The camera pans a little; then some more; then a lot. The whole cemetery is full of women cleaning tombs. The pan ends on a chunk of marble which now fills the screen. The titles come up against this background, notably ‘Volver’ in thick red letters.
The women make a couple of visits in the small town, which establish the back-story. Raimunda’s and Sole’s parents died in a fire two and half years ago. They have an aged aunt who says she has seen the dead mother. The aunt herself seems too out of it to be living alone and managing as well as she does, and although we don’t learn this right away, it becomes clear that the whole town, including the aunt’s neighbour Agustina, the person who almost told the story on TV, believes the mother’s ghost is helping the old lady out. Agustina’s own mother disappeared around the time of the fire. Raimunda and her companions return, in the literal, mundane sense, to Madrid, and the film dives into a brisk mix of old Hollywood melodrama and new Spanish soap, with a glance at Italian neo-realism before everything got so campy. Late in the film, the person taken to be the mother’s ghost sits before a TV set, contentedly watching Anna Magnani in Visconti’s Bellissima.
There is an attempted rape, a murder, a body dumped in a freezer, left there for much of the movie, and finally buried, freezer and all, by the bank of a distant river. Raimunda, who already has three cleaning jobs to make ends meet, takes up a career as a caterer, and borrows the empty restaurant next door to serve lunches to a film crew working in the neighbourhood. The aged aunt dies in the small town. Raimunda can’t go to the funeral, but Sole attends, and comes back with her mother’s ghost in the back of the car. She doesn’t know this until she has parked the car in Madrid and hears a thumping noise as she starts to walk away. A distinctly unghostly voice says, ‘Open up, it’s your mother,’ and a distinctly unghostly Carmen Maura is revealed lying in the boot, cramped and untidy. Sole overcomes her fear and takes her mother home.
Of course it crosses your mind – well, it crossed mine and I don’t think I’m going to be alone in this – that it’s a strange ghost that needs transport and can’t pass through a solid surface when it wants to, let alone one that looks so scruffily, physically mortal that the first thing she needs to do in her new life is to get her straggly grey hair dyed a decent brown. But hey, it’s only a movie, we’ve heard of magic realism, and maybe this is Almodóvar’s cinematic joke: ghosts don’t cry, but actors photograph like people. We have no reason, beyond our own pedestrian suspicions, to think the mother is not a ghost. At this point a brilliant and tender double-take begins, although we can’t know this until close to the end of the movie, and I can’t discuss it without revealing the plot. Stop reading here if you haven’t guessed where things are going. The actual turn of the plot isn’t the point, though. The point is what the turn makes us feel and how it invites us to think.
The movie settles down into a picture of weird but stable working life. Raimunda hustles with her catering, hires a van and buries the body, goes back to catering. It’s a characteristic Almodóvar touch that there is no suspense about any of this. The body is a grisly and awkward comic object, but not a source of danger – unless of course its owner were to return from the dead. Raimunda buys some rope and tape to seal the freezer. The shopkeeper hands them over. ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘And a pick and a shovel.’ Mild surprise from the shopkeeper, nothing more. Meanwhile the mother’s ghost helps Sole with her hairdressing business, and makes friends with her granddaughter, although Raimunda knows nothing of any of this.
The crunch comes when Agustina, who is dying of cancer, decides the only way to find out what happened to her missing mother is to ask the dead – namely, Raimunda’s mother – and begs Raimunda to do this. Raimunda thinks Agustina is crazy, and we wonder what Raimunda is going to do when she comes to know what we know. Then Raimunda drops in on Sole, smells a trace of her mother in the bathroom – all family farts are odorous in their own way – and discovers her hiding under the bed. Raimunda stamps off, in a rage with her mother for reasons we can’t imagine – although we do know they were estranged for many years. Then Raimunda goes back and she and her mother talk. Early on in the conversation Raimunda says: ‘You’re not a ghost, are you?’ The mother smiles sadly, shakes her head. Reason returns, but radically altered by its long spell of legend and/or insanity.
I don’t need to describe the now unfolding details of an earlier murder, an even earlier rape and a whole heap of unforgiven family history. It’s all too much and too little, the material of sensationalist newspapers and weepy movies. And it’s all just right, since it works through the clichés rather than just with them or just against them. This is good news, since Almodóvar, once the master of an edgy dialogue with sentimentality, in High Heels, for example, has recently – especially in All About My Mother – been giving the dialogue a miss. Beneath the weepy surface there has been only more weeping. In brief, Raimunda’s mother didn’t die, but Agustina’s mother did; and the film ends with Raimunda’s mother, a live woman whom a whole town thinks is a ghost, impersonating a ghost in order to care for the dying Agustina. In this perspective life and survival are harsh realities and optional spirit forms: working fantasies, available stories.
The acting is remarkable throughout the film, perfectly realistic, mildly bemused, as if the characters themselves had started out in early Visconti and got lost on their way to Douglas Sirk. Raimunda is a great role for Penelope Cruz, cloyingly sweet in every other movie of hers I’ve seen. Tight skirts, fast walk, gleaming eyes, she means business every minute of the film, whatever the business is. She is like a smaller, fiercer version of the Anna Magnani we see in the film clip on TV. And Almodóvar’s direction is discreet and funny, self-conscious without going quite as far as irony. Before all the violence and melodrama starts, Raimunda is washing up the dishes in the kitchen. A sudden shot from directly overhead shows her handsome cleavage and a large kitchen knife. We’ve already seen the drunken husband staring at Paula’s crotch, and we know what this frame means: male desire and female resistance. We and the camera are the person ogling the breasts and the person who will pick up the knife. In fact Almodóvar is showing us only the elements of such a story, a displaced prophecy. It isn’t Raimunda who picks up the knife, although if anyone ever asks, she will say it was. This careful use of an overdetermined theme allows us both to recognise the territory and to catch the ghost of the actual emotions that melodrama so often blurs into mush.