Watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is like eating an jumbo portion of from-scratch dessert - that half-eaten chocolate layer cake that I have to confront in the fridge every morning and reluctantly move aside in pursuit of yogurt or almond milk. Volver manages to retain that intense sweetness to the very last, which is an accomplishment considering that it also delivers instances of incestuous rape, patricide, and a frantically sexy Penelope Cruz stashing a corpse in an industrial fridge.
Whatever Almodóvar’s secret ingredient is, it’s addictive. The film equivalent of a processed sugar substitute. Maybe it’s that you get to relish Cruz as the inscrutable Raimunda, stomping around in deliciously tight clothes, always slightly disheveled, her wheels always spinning. Or maybe it’s the ensemble cast of incredible Spanish actresses, which includes my all-time favorite Carmen Maura (if you haven’t seen her in La ley del deseo, please do. You won’t regret it, if only because you will also see a mentally unstable Antonio Banderas in the nude) as well as Blanca Portillo and Lola Dueñas.
If there’s a moment when Volver’s sweetness starts to sicken, it’s when a stressed Raimunda, having just single-handedly catered a wrap party for an entire film crew, is persuaded to sing a flamenco-fied version of the famous tango “Volver,” from which the movie takes its name. Penelope doesn’t sing, but instead does an endearingly horrible job of lip-syncing over Estrella Morente’s croon. The scene consists almost entirely of shots cropped tightly around her earnestly emotive face, and a single tear slides down a pristine cheek as she sings the familiar lines (Are her lips always this juicy?) and is rewarded with a round of wholehearted applause.
“Volver” is a good choice for a movie that deals with the past - especially when Raimunda’s supposedly dead mother makes an re-appearance that is decidedly not phantasmal - but it’s worth considering that “Volver” is more than a famous song with a good title for Almodóvar’s mind-bending antics. Here is a Spanish director who has made a decidedly Spanish movie (Spanish cast, Spanish setting, Spanish ghost stories) and wait! Into the mix goes a Latin American tango standard, rendered in Spanish style and sung by Morente, who's from Granada.
Why do I care? Maybe it’s just Penelope’s overacting, but something about using a Latin American standard—one that was famously co-written and performed by Argentine tango legend Carlos Gardel—in a movie that is otherwise so decidedly Spanish really gets me. The milonga and tango dance styles took root in the late 1800s in areas of Buenos Aires that the upper crust considered pretty unsavory, and for many Carlos Gardel and the ensuing national popularity of the tango in Argentina represents a kind of re-appropriation, a smoothing over of something that appeals because of its roughness. In other words, tango in this context loses its spirit of lusty rebellion. Perhaps Almodóvar is aware of this sentiment, and his choice to make “Volver” so central in the movie is an allusion to what it once represented, to the bitterness in life that Raimunda can’t seem to evade. All I’m tasting, however, is chocolate.