It’s spring semester and I’ve somehow found myself in Spain. And, logically, I decided the best way to experience the culture (other than actually spending time in the country) was to watch Spanish movies. I’ve been told that exploring a specific genre in detail could potentially take away its original shine, that it’s a disenchanting experience. But in the last two weeks, I’ve found I enjoy when something becomes “old.” This aging suggests a certain appealing familiarity that I hope to gain with these movies and the Spanish language itself in the coming weeks.
To start the series, I chose to watch “Volver,” both because I watched it in my seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish classes, and due to its accessibility on Netflix. The 2006 film follows Raimunda (Penelope Cruz, “Everybody Knows”) as she works to cover up the fact that her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, “Terror y Féria”), accidentally killed Raimunda’s husband. At the same time, Raimunda’s sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas, “Instinto”), contends with the restless soul of their mother. Each storyline has the makings of its own movie, and yet, what makes “Volver” impressive is the way each character interacts with the independent plots, weaving together a complicated and perfectly clear drama for the ages. There is an unexpected balance between each sister’s experience which makes for a movie with the intrigue of a soap opera but none of the cheese.
“Volver” takes no time to jump into the drama — even while introducing the characters in the first twenty minutes, each moment is filled with tension. Whether or not this was because I was still feeling the adrenaline of trying to understand the language with minimal subtitle use is beside the point. One of the more intense sequences, though, comes when Raimunda is forced to clean up the evidence of her husband’s murder. This comes after we have watched her spend the day cleaning at an airport, and, while the parallel between her job and ability to clean up a murder is disconcerting, Raimunda’s resolve to protect her daughter is admirable, and the scene itself is a piece of art.
Director Pedro Almódovar (“The Skin I Live In”) takes a scene of domesticity and sprinkles it with terror: Raimunda mops the kitchen floor, but the water is tinted red. She washes the implement-turned-weapon over a set of dirty dishes, and, when the owner of the restaurant is at her door, she brushes blood off of her neck as though these were mere “cosas de mujeres” (women things).
Because “Volver” is filled with moments like these, I found myself wondering how in the world I was ever allowed to watch this movie in school when I was thirteen. The movie covered some pretty heavy topics — death is an obvious one, but there was also the question of infidelity after we find out that Raimunda’s husband is not Paula’s biological father, though he raised her in that sense. At least, until the fateful night when he tried to rape her, but ended up dead. A gasp-worthy revelation indeed. This is an important point to note because it also created unnerving tension and raised issues of pedophilia and borderline-incestuous relationships. I vaguely remember having to get a permission slip signed for the movie before I could watch it.
“Volver” is one of those movies in which the only available subtitles are in Spanish. Eighth-grade-me would have been appalled (and I definitely was) at this fact, but now, though I was still a little hesitant, it only makes sense that the only available language is Spanish. Without English subtitles, I was focusing entirely on the Spanish language and learning more than I ever could had I simply been reading the movie.
The main thing to take away from this movie, however, is that Penelope Cruz is a badass. And, if you’re trying to forget about the murder of your husband or that drunk text you sent to an ex last night, the only remedy you really need is a job and a cute new love interest.