| October 14, 2006

After a two-film hiatus in which he explored damaged boys, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar returns to his preferred collective of resilient, strong-willed females struggling with (but never surrendering to) hardship and heartache. He may idealize, slightly, the community of mutually supporting women (although their affection is casually spiked with impatience and, at times, a reluctant obligation), but he does lay bare the emotional truth of beleaguered, complex women having only each other to turn to as the men in their lives persist in their absence, ineffectuality, and violence. In fact, I believe Almodoóar dismisses men all too broadly and easily, but he is following the principals, after all, of the ’50s Technicolor melodramas, and they belong exclusively to the women. Am I the only one who wishes Almodóvar hadn’t grown so fond of Douglas Sirk that he wanted to exclusively devote himself to emulation of his style and emotional tenor? His films have grown increasingly refined and classy, but I do miss the knockabout energy of his farces, and the iconoclastically bold, perverse spirit of his first few dramas.
Penelope Cruz as Raimunda (the film works overtime to establish her link to the history of cinematic Earth Mothers like Magnani and Loren, all heaving bosom and swishing derriere, a repository of fertile strength, lusty and indomitable) is first revealed in a shot that cunningly encompasses the film’s major theme: she and a group of townswomen in her home village are tending to the graves of family members and husbands, sweeping, brushing, fussing them into tidiness. These are people who honor their dead, keeping a conversation in motion with the past. In the case of Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Duenas), who starts receiving regular visits from their dead mother, the dialogue becomes literal. With events in Raimunda’s life also taking on extreme conditions, the sisters must come to terms with what the present owes the past, and the lingering effects on the present of bad choices from the past-forgiveness must travel both directions. Both the living and the dead are searching for redemption in this colourful fable–truth may be an uneasy and troubling proposition, but it’s the only way to move forward.
Some of the more florid flourishes of the melodrama work to diminish the delicacy of this particular tale-heightened emotion is just fine, but it does have a threshold after which the plot pushes into cartoonishness (especially in a protracted disposal of a dead body, the antics of a trashy daytime television series, and the circumstances surrounding the corporeality/incorporeality of the girls’ mother, embodied by the feisty Carmen Maura). Whereas his earlier, less labored films gave themselves room to casually stumble upon a moment of great emotional revelation or dark truth, the last few films have worked strenuously to achieve power. Strangely, the closer Almodovar gets to himself and his own experience, as he has claimed the last few films of his have done, the less compelling he is as an artist(adulthood stunts him). A more straightforward and honest approach now sits uneasily against his more sardonic moments. He does conclude with a stunning end credit sequence, a kaleidoscopic wonder of blossoming floral patterns that’s a great visual complement to the closing moments of the film, in which clogged souls are unstuck, and open rapturously–Cruz’s face bursts ecstatically the moment she is able to see her mother, and it’s truly as if she has just been birthed for a second time, suddenly alive to the wonder of the world once more.

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