Friday, 23 February 2007

Volver (2006)


Alzheimer's disease, incest, death, murder and rape hardly sound like the subject matter for a 'feel good' optimistic movie, but then we are talking Pedro Almodovar here!

Volver screencap

Almadovar, who wrote and directed the screenplay for Volver, gives us an enchanting tale about a family of strong women, all battling with demons of different guises. It is at times sad, funny and intensely moving, but it's the good humour and the resilience of the women that stays with you after the closing credits have rolled. The film is sub-titled, which is normally a turn-off for most cinema-goers, and yet it has has done great business at the box office. It's not hard to see why - there's something here for everyone but most importantly, Almodovar hasn't resorted to the cloying sentimentalism that a Hollywood studio would have insisted upon.

The catalyst for the story is the seeming return of the ghost of the family's dead mother, shortly after the death of an aunt who had been suffering from Alzheimer's for many years. It goes without saying, for those who've seen Almodovar's other films, that this is a story written and directed by a man who loves women, no matter what their size, shape or form. Not that men don't figure, but when they do, they're undoubtedly the 'bad guys' of the film, and quickly dispensed with. What's different this time round is that the film is far more mainstream than the director's previous, frequently very quirky, efforts.

Volver screencap

Penelope Cruz plays the female lead, a cheerful, if oppressed and over-worked mother with a good-for-nothing husband and a daughter who seems happy to spend all her time running up bills on her mobile phone. Struggling to look after her own family, she also has to deal with an ailing aunt who brought her up as if she were her own child, but who lives some distance from the family home.

A tragic accident, following a depraved attack on Cruz's daughter by her step-father, enforces a change in direction for the over-worked mother, and the importance of truth, the family, and your friends and neighbours is the backdrop to a tale full of tears, but plenty of laughs too.

Almodovar applies a light touch to some potentially very dark subject matter, which works wonderfully, thanks to a truly impressive cast. For many Cruz will be seen as stealing the show, and she certainly dominates the screen in terms of running time, whilst also delivering a performance that feels totally natural and unforced, despite the bizarre goings-on around her. But without her strong supporting cast her light may not have shone so brightly, and it's small wonder that the Cannes Film Jury last year gave the 'Best Actress' award to the entire female cast of the movie, even if the oscars have chosen only to celebrate Cruz's performance.

Volver screencap

The transfer is excellent, as is thankfully becoming the norm these days of mass-market DVD, and it's a pleasure to see a film made in 2006 that doesn't resort to desaturated colours, or artificial colour grading in some sort of bizarre attempt to convey an atmosphere. The film is full of colourful characters and the natural colour of everyday life - if only more movies could say the same!

This has been given a double-disk release, and is presented in a nice embossed slip-case, although I'm not convinced it really needed a second disk just for the extra's. On the main disc there is a commentary track by the director and his lead actress, which I have to confess I didn't get around to listening to, but will at some stage when the 'DVDs waiting to be watched' pile isn't quite so high!

Volver screencap

The second disc has a documentary on the director that is rather light and fluffy. A conversation with the director and the female cast is more interesting, seemingly shot around a table in Almodovar's offices, but is embarrassingly awkward at times. One feels the actresses struggling to say the right thing and there are scenes where one of Almodovar's long-time actresses tells the director she's never seen him so passionate as he is when he's around Penelope Cruz that become toe-curlingly embarrassing as Almodovar turns into a love-sick boy of six, and Cruz tries to maintain a professional distance with over-gushing praise for her 'mentor'.

A short 'home movie' featurette on the Cannes Film Festival 2006 is a nice souvenir of what it's like to tout your wares at such an event (showing it's a nightmare for those involved on both sides of the camera, despite all the perceived glamour and glitz) but gives little information about the film itself. Separate marketing junket interviews with the director and two of the actresses are spoilt by the poor level of questions, asked by a journalist who clearly doesn't have English as her first language, coupled with poor unedited camerawork. There's little here that hasn't already been explained in the other featurettes.

Slightly disappointing extra's aside, Volver is a joyous, life-affirming, 'feel good' movie, and one that can withstand repeated viewings. As such it's a purchase rather than a rental. Highly recommended.

Volver screencap

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