15. Penelope Cruz as Raimunda in "Volver" (2006)
Friday, July 23, 2010
Almodovar’s really got a fetish for the absurd, and “Volver” is an ode to the melodrama he explored earlier in his career – it’s a story primarily about women, much like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “All About My Mother”, yet there's a layer of sincere, genuine humanism behind this high-strung, energetic artifice. It’s very much about returning to one’s roots – “Volver” translates, of course, as ‘to return’; Almodovar’s not only returning to La Mancha, the place that shaped his directorial vision, but Cruz, too, is back to her Spanish-language roots, at home in this tongue, and we can sense that from the first moment she's on screen. There’s a pulsating melody in the way Cruz communicates her feelings; she infuses the film not only with the exact spirited, tangy snap it needs but also with the underpinnings of deep-seated, credible emotional thought, giving the film a sort of intimacy that's so often absent from typical melodramatic conventions.
“Volver” is a celebration of femininity, and Raimunda’s an embodiment of the quintessential woman – as a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, she’s an amalgam of the different facets of the feminine spirit. She’s so womanly, with a padded bust and Lorenesque hips that give her the feeling of full, well-rounded physicality. But she’s restive and fidgety, too, as if there's a timepiece running through her head; she appears to us as a woman who's constantly contemplating what she’ll do next. In this sense, her Raimunda’s impulsive yet shrewd, with a quick-thinking sharpness about her that’s topped off with – or perhaps even challenged by – her knowingness.
Cruz’s engine runs fast – she moves with the swift rhythm of a real Mediterranean performer, always fine-tuned, always acutely aware of her surroundings. As an actress, she knows exactly when and how to shape her body so she can inhabit this rich world Almodovar’s created – she’s earthy in the truest, most literal sense of the word. No inflection or gesture of hers has a false note; she maintains a lyrical urgency, a sort of passionate repose that quite literally glues the film's women together. She rides the torrents of nearly every possible degree of human feeling with vibrant, emotional truth, sustaining an incredible rhythm throughout the film that gives us reason to care at all. The oft-criticized lip-synching scene, in particular, is such a beautiful display of Cruz’s ability to so convey organic emotional progression, comparable to the careful honesty Jane Fonda displays in the climax of “Klute” as she hears a recording of Arlyn Page's murder. At every step, Cruz builds for us some sort of emotional reserve that allows us to really react to the film’s climax – it comes to us like a blow to the stomach. The revelation of Raimunda's childhood abuse at the end of the film – something so inevitable, given the writerly clues hidden in the screenplay – forces us to look back at Raimunda’s character and just marvel at Cruz's craftsmanship. She's folded into Raimunda her an inner layer of emotional vulnerability that suggests an inability to come to terms with her past; through this, she’s able to make us realize just how emotionally complex a woman, and all women in general, can be.
If “Volver” is homage to women, Cruz’s performance here is a tribute to female screen acting in general: the grounded theatricality of her Raimunda is supposed to remind us of the days of Crawford, Magnani, Lollobrigida, Loren. She bustles her way through every scene, somehow finding a way to fit this intensely carnal woman into a larger-than-life framework. Cruz is so great here that it feels as if she’s had to condescend herself to her roles in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Nine” – stuff like that is child’s play for a talent like her; the way Allen and Marshall use her is too easy, too expected, and so she almost seems uncomfortable in those roles. Here, though, she’s persistently digging deeper, always trying to unearth the humanism in the melodrama, and it’s such a wonder to see her continually discovering how damn good she really is at her craft – she’s real snug in Raimunda’s body. She steps into this character without any hesitation, communicating her emotions with such confidence, effortlessness, and spontaneity that we feel that, just maybe, she’s a talent too big for Hollywood.