One review of Volver on Letterboxd simply says: “I think men have like… maybe ten lines total in this entire film. I feel refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to give back to the community”. Though intended as a joke, I believe that the line resonates with the main plot thread of the film and where the women in the film go right and wrong in finding their way to building new connections with one another.
Pedro Almodovar is a director whose trademarks have always been well-written female characters, telenovela plotlines taken to an entertaining extreme, and a tonal mix of snappy comedy and somber drama unique to only him. With regards to these elements, Volver might be considered peak Almodovar.
Volver’s female-centric narrative keeps its viewers in a state of disbelief regarding its treatment of men and how the film smoothly crafts a world where women thrive in spite of them. For a film that begins with a murder and a death, the stakes are kept rather personal for the most part, with the murder becoming a subplot that’s treated more like a nuisance than a major development in the story. The treatment of Paco’s death even comes off as unwitting retribution for the phenomenon of “fridging” in mainstream cinema, wherein a woman is killed off to further a man’s plotline by motivating him with grief. Here, the concept is reversed: Over the course of disposing of his body, his wife Raimunda stumbles on opportunities to begin a new, independent life for herself and her daughter. The men in the film, while posing threats in the past (as is the case with Paco and Raimunda’s father), are inconsequential and easy to handle in the present – the women of the film and their complicated relationships with one another dominate the narrative.
Volver’s great accomplishment is pulling this off without romanticizing the idea of “female relationships”. The relationships between all the women, at least intiially, are fraught with judgment of, and tension with one another. Raimunda and Paula have a typical nagging mother-rebellious daughter dynamic, All the adult women treat Soledad with contempt due to her status as a divorced woman living in the shadow of her imperious sister, and Agustina is desperate for the emotional support of the rest – their only connection being the shared demise of their parents’. Irene’s titular act of returning to the rest of her family, while out of left field, becomes the choice changes all these dynamics for the better. The movie is centered on this untangling of dramatic knots, despite also featuring a murder, subsequent coverup, illegal business practices, and a dark backstory involving incest and arson.
Volver might as well be called the first great modern female-centric film. It follows a 20th century tradition of well-crafted films about, and for, women such as Terms of Endearment, 3 Women, and 9 to 5. Volver even seems to take plot points directly from these films. However, Volver is original in its kitchen sink approach to women in conflict – these women could be your mother, sister, daughter, etc., and they may hate one another, but despite this, a uniquely female sense of camaraderie is palpable.