I finally watched Volver last week. As with all of Almodovar's films that I've seen so far, I spent the first 20 minutes or so not sure I'd like it, and by the end was totally engrossed in the fates of the characters. One of the reasons I get so involved in an Almodovar movie is the fact that the women are all crazy, contradictory messes...in other words, something like me.
Admittedly, the women in the earlier films (in particular Women on the Verge) are more like drag queens, but the stories themselves were more like soap operas - over the top in content, color, and style as well as character. But by All About My Mother, there's a definite shift. As his storytelling becomes a little less strident, so too his characters become less exclamatory...and many of his characters are women. This may not seem remarkable, but just try to think of films where the leads are women. Where the female characters have a relationship or interaction with each other, especially one that's not simply about men.
But simply featuring women isn't enough. The women are presented with difficult circumstances, hard choices, uncertain alliances - and they find their way through.
Volver, in particular, features some of the most mature portrayals of women I've ever seen in a movie. There is insanity and a kind of willful superstitiousness, a desire to believe the stories and myths because they work for the narratives each person creates about their own lives - and when these narratives these women create intersect with parts of other people's narratives in ways that don't fit, the characters are forced to examine themselves.
The women find ways to make reality work in their own personal stories. A lot of it is like the fake bottom Penelope Cruz wears to make her look more womanly (can you imagine an American actress doing this, and not for fat jokes but because she's too skinny to be a believable mom?) - it's a fiction that gives an illusion of reality as part of a myth, but those myths are ultimately what allows everyone to function.
Raimunda's mother is dead. We start the movie at her grave. But when they visit the auntie, there's evidence that the mother is there in that house. Her smell in the air, her special cookies baked for them. They dismiss it at first, then they subscribe to the idea that Irene (Raimunda's mother) is a ghost, taking care of the old auntie. The sister even takes her in, and continues to half act as if Irene were a willful spirit - but no, she is alive. Everyone continues to pretend she is dead, however, because it hides another truth that's buried in a myth - the fact that Raimunda's father was with another woman when he died. It's only by managing a difficult balance of truth and myth that the characters are able to confront what really happened, and only as a ghost that Irene is able to make amends with the daughter of the other woman.
Of course, it's all much more complicated than that. This is Almodovar, after all. But it is this complexity that makes the women real. That makes us go from one outrageous circumstance or belief to another, without ever being thrown out of the story. Raimunda, for instance, is very good at pretending and ignoring the truth. She's had to be since she was a teenager, when she hid the fact that her father impregnated her. Pretended that the loser she ended up marrying to cover her shame and provide her daughter a father was more than a convenience.
I also love Almodovar's women because when faced with situations that would crush so many others, they simply go on, as we all must. They make terrible messes and then they find a way to live with them. They find the strength, sometimes in their friendships with each other, sometimes in themselves, and they are often surprised by it.
Isn't that how we all muddle through? With some myths about ourselves, a few hard truths, leaning on our friends a little and managing to find surprising strength in ourselves to not only muddle through impossible situations but even managing to shine once in a while.
It's refreshing to see such beautiful messes in a movie.