Bright Lights Film Journal

Returning to Life: Talking with Almodovar, Penelope Cruz, and Carmen Maura at Cannes

“I do not have the serenity of women. But I admire it.”

Pedro Almodovar’s new film Volver (Return) features an unusual number of deaths. Penelope Cruz, in the best performance she had given to date, plays a woman (Raimunda) who must protect her daughter, the killer of her husband, by hiding his corpse. In the meantime, her own mother comes back from the grave to haunt her, an aunt dies, and a neighbor loses the battle to cancer. Despite the comedic tone, a serious sense of mortality seeps through.

“I am afraid of death,” admitted Pedro Almodovar, over lunch at Cannes.

The film treats this fear, much like a mother’s hand will soothe her child to sleep: it presents death as an ever present hovering force that, with the goodwill of women, can be sung into a lullaby or swept into a dustbin. The first shot is a graveyard with Spanish women cleaning graves, their rears and arms moving in unison while the treacherous Eastern wind threatens to sweep the flowers off.

But no flower topples over: the women’s cleaning rituals are enough to protect the world from the winds of fortune — if not death itself.

“I admire women,” Almodovar explained. “Women collectively take care of death. They maintain life with rituals like cleaning or mourning. I grew up with women in La Mancha. This is my return to them. Women have a positive energy.”

Women dominate Volver much as they did Almodovar’s earlier classics Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and All About My Mother (1999) When Raimunda is caught with blood streaked on her lovely neck, she responds, “O, es nada, cosas de mujeres!”

And “women’s business” it is.

Indeed, right after the first death in the film, Almodovar shoots two classic female rituals: women washing hair in a beauty salon and women preparing food. One character quips that her dead mother is so into the ritual of cleaning that if she could, she would clean her own grave.

Raimunda herself is even more domestic: she stuffs her husband’s corpse in a refrigerator while she cooks for a film crew. She is helped by her friendly neighbor, a burly prostitute, to dig a grave and serve blood sausages.

“I was picked for this part because Pedro wanted someone very vulnerable, yet strong,” said Cruz, sporting a big wad of gum in her left side of her mouth, as she quietly shifted her weight in a chair. “Pedro knows I cry a lot for many things, and he also knows I can be very strong when I need to be. My character changes her mood every fifteen seconds.”

The camera fetishizes Cruz’s moody face (as well as her maternal cleavage, highlighted by a purple low-cut sweater, and her solidly rounded rear end, which the slender Cruz admits was supplemented with pads). Cruz’ eyes are constantly brimming with wet tears, making her seem like a conduit to human suffering at the same time that she charges down the streets with gusto, summoning tomatoes and cakes.

“The film is a homage to mothers,” said Cruz. “To love, to the family.”

She identifies with this role personally. “I am very attracted to my family. I call them every day from the States. Although I have no children, when I see a baby I want to pick one up and take care of it.”

With all the celebration of motherhood, it is easy to overlook the fact that Almodovar’s film is, at the end, quite dark. The family is a locus for murder, sickness, perversion, and incest. Cruz’s drunken husband (before his demise) leers at her l4-year-old daughter’s pubescent breasts. There is also a perverse secret in Raimunda’s own past. Indeed, the film could have been called Haunted rather than Return. Secrets plague each woman.

Cruz would not deny that it is a dark film. “It is a strong experience to understand what my character is feeling,” said Cruz. “In Madrid, I went to a house of children who have been abandoned, and I had in my hands a baby of a girl who had been raped by her brother. When I had that baby in my hands, it was horrible. That was when I understood my character Raimunda. Of course I understood it intellectually before, but that day I felt it in my gut, burning.”

The director may be similarly haunted.

“I am not a peaceful man,” the director confessed, opening his hands on the white tablecloth. “I do not have the serenity of women. But I admire it.”

He especially admires the serenity — and artistry — of his own late mother: “My mother was as natural with the neighbors as she was with the King of Spain. I learned to tell stories by listening to my mother and sisters. My fiction comes from them.”

“Yes,” corroborated Carmen Maura, the star of Almodovar’s early movies, revived here in this film as the “ghost” mother of Penelope Cruz. “His mother was a formidable force. So funny, very clever, telling stories. Pedro adored his mother. Now he adores Penelope. Everything is Penelope for him. I am nothing to him. I don’t know what happened.”

Yet Maura’s role dominates the film: she plays a mother similar to Pedro’s own. In a vivacious performance, she comes back to life to haunt her two daughters, Raimunda and Sole, even better at her maternal skills the second time around. This mother, who has acted rather cowardly in the past, avoiding facing responsibility for crimes in her midst, becomes a true mother, reincarnated as it were. By the end, Maura performs the ultimate maternal act: she helps ease a woman’s way to death, and earns the right to exchange glances with a TV image of Anna Magnani, the idealized Italian mother of the south.

Maura enjoyed making the film immensely, despite her cooled rapport with Pedro, with whom she first dared make films twenty years ago when she was a famed actress and Pedro a dangerous homosexual director, disgraceful and taboo in Franco’s fascist Spain. Back then, working with Almodovar was “equivalent to being a whore.”

Today, working with Almodovar still means unconventional freedom. Both Cruz and Maura agreed he is one of the few male directors to give women roles that do not just emphasize beauty and youth.

Had the director changed since Women on the Verge?

“Pedro seems sad to me,” Maura confided in her raspy Spanish, whispering impishly as if she didn’t know that every word would be transcribed on a tape recorder. “Closed off to himself. Something has happened to him.”

The film, as lively as it seems, does have a solemnity to it: as “holy as a church,” added Maura.

Indeed, at the earlier press conference, a serene beam seemed to unite all the actors, almost like a postcoital blissful haze.

“Yes,” Almodovar confessed. “Something special happened on that set. The presence of an extraordinary other dimension.”

The director continued, eyes bright as his grey hair tufted on his head.

“Every day after sunset, Penelope and I would take a walk on the path through the village. It was the greatest moment of spirituality I have had in my entire life. We would go up the hill, cross the field. We finish shooting normally when the sun sets, then I’d go with Penelope until the countryside, walk without talking, through wide open streets, to see sheep and a few cows. I felt inner peace. This never happened before in a film. The film has a healthy effect on me. I didn’t intend it.

“It’s as if my mother took my hand.”

Cruz lights up as she remembers the walks. “It was very peaceful, especially when we were shooting at night, and we would talk to the neighbors, who loved it, because it was where Pedro grew up.”

One thing they talked about, of course, was death.

Cruz, unlike Almodovar, is unafraid.

“I worry about when and how death will happen, but I don’t imagine that what comes later is just black. I have always seen death as a transition, a continuation of a research for answers. I talk about that with Pedro, because he knows I believe in reincarnation and he asks, what can I do to believe in it. He doesn’t believe but he loves listening to people who do.”

Perhaps Cruz believes in a return of sorts, but at the end of the day, does Pedro? The film starts with graves being cleaned, and ends with a closed door, all family secrets now ably buried. Isn’t that a bit like a tombstone — a return that is now closed, a pessimistic end?

“No,” said Almodovar. “It is not a door. It is a curtain. A curtain between this life and the afterlife.”

As always with Almodovar, one sees the curtain, and the trace of light under it.