Volver : women’s lives and deaths

The U3A screening at the Lexi in March was Almodovar’s Volver. The audience, as usual composed of a majority of women, greatly appreciated the film.   This was expressed by lively contributions by many of them.

There were general comments: idealisation of women by Almodovar, absence and/or stereotyping of men, and the resilience of ordinary women.   The themes mentioned were family lies, the need to deal with unfinished business and its relevance to us older women, the support of neighbours and friends in the country. More specifically the multiple  relationships between women: mother/daughter, sisters, grandmother/granddaughter, aunts, friends and neighbours.

Apart from the general comments, it was interesting for me to see how Almodovar’s mise-en-scene was also appreciated and commented on. The first scene in the cemetery, the landscape with wind farms between the town and country, the use of the ghost superstition, the motif of  the knife, the role of food, the pace of the film with no empty scenes, the way that it was not possible to anticipate what would happen next.

This film is magic. It involves  death, many sorts of deaths: through old age,  stabbing,  arson, cancer.   To top it all there is a ghost appearance.  There is sexual abuse, incest, unfaithfulness, revenge murder.   And yet the Lexi audience and the great majority of critics report being elated and delighted by the film.  This is not a black comedy but it does have very  funny scenes.  It is a film about women’s lives, women’s resilience and women’s solidarity.

I feel paralysed by the richness of this film and think that no review, critique or blog can do it justice. I would like to talk about the complex way the story is told,  the cues, hints and suspense, the connotations, the dialogue, the characters,  the acting, the comedy,  the locations, the colours, the editing, the music. I will limit myself to a few points.

The first scene shows in a long right to left pan a cemetery where the wind is blowing.  An unlikely number of women are  brushing and washing all the visible tombstones. Raimunda, and her sister Sole talk about their dead mother while cleaning their  parents’ tomb. Raimonda’s teenager daughter is also present. Agustina their old friend arrives to clean her own tombstone. They greet each other and kiss affectionately. Death, making good and warm relationships are the main themes of the film.

From my point of view this scene expresses aspects of my life that I have rarely seen  on-screen. Death presented as a natural part of life is becoming my experience as people of my generation have started to die.  Family continuity has also been a concern of mine lately and the presence of the teenager in the cemetery is very significant as is the reunion of old close friends. The surreal feel of the scene, with  scores of women cleaning efficiently in a powerful wind takes also another meaning, the resilience of women in adverse circumstances.

This surreal and magical touch is carried on in the next scene: the visit to the confused aunt Paula.  The old woman only relates to Raimunda,  is suspicious of Sole and does not recognise young Paula. She has baked and prepared food  for the nieces to take home. Paula is dementing and nearly blind and yet I readily accept that although she lives on her own,  she looks well-groomed and the house is well-tended. She claims that her dead sister looks after her. But like the three women I do not question this. As it happens so often with confused old people, things they say that may be true but disturbing are dismissed off-hand.  It is the skill  of  Almodovar that touches in me a deep fantasy : it is possible to be dementing and yet function normally.

The visit of the three women to Agustina, the neighbour and friend also touches on this fantasy. In our own world we are asked  in extreme weather to keep an eye on our elderly neighbours. In the film Agustina  buys Paula bread every day and makes sure that she answers her knock at the door. It is a common fantasy that this gesture is enough to alleviate the isolation of the old woman.

The last scenes I would like to draw attention to are Paula’s funeral. Sole terrified after seeing the ghost of  her mother in Paula’s empty house rushes to Agustina’s where the wake is taking place. It is the only scene where men are seen. They are all balding and/or grey-haired and stare at Sole. She rushes into the arms of  Agustina who hugs and kisses her. Sole then confronts the women all dressed in black. It is a shot from above looking down that shows  the women crowding around Sole to kiss and hug her. The women are all old and yet only two of them have grey hair. Again we see here the visual genius of Almodovar.  A cut then goes from the black circle of old women  around Sole  to the circle of a white soup plate that Agustina  serves to comfort her friend. It is then that we are introduced to the notion that the ‘dead’ Irene appears to the villagers as a ghost. It is interesting that like in Allen’s film the painful experience of death leads to the superstitions communication with the dead in modern London  and ghost appearances in rural Spain.

I will leave it  to other women to examine the other aspects of women’s lives that are so well exposed in Volver. Some relates specially to older women : ‘unfinished business’, family lies, the use of superstition to deal with the idea of death. Others are more general: sexual abuse, unfaithfulness, the constant cleaning, making good, loving, feeding, caring.  Volver deserves a whole book.

It occurs to me that like Strangers in Good Company and Pauline and Paulette the absence of men permits in  this film a deeper exploration of women’s issues. However in Since Otar Left, another film involving three generations of women, the man although absent visually is overwhelming present.  DISCUSS.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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3 Responses to Volver : women’s lives and deaths

  1. Thank you for posting about this film. I teach about aging and also about death and dying, both from a critical perspective and this sounds like it is a perfect fit. I look forward to watching it myself. I often show Strangers in Good Company, another wonderful and powerful film. Great review.

  2. Reblogged this on The Lonely Gerontologist and commented:
    A wonderful review of a film that addresses many of the issues we gerontologists and everyone who cares about aging from a substantive perspective should know about. I have yet to watch it but I’m on the search as we speak!

  3. Pingback: Summer Project – Post 3 | Carina Gonzalez-Brown

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