A day in Spain

Yesterday was a day of two mildly disappointing Spanish movies, which are (I fear) doomed to be not only linked but also confused in my future reminiscences.

The first, "Only Human" (2004), is a farce with a promising foundation: successful daughter Leni brings her boyfriend home to meet her crazy Jewish family, telling them that he is Israeli. Only after a great deal of embarrassing conversation about where he did his military service and where his family lives does it emerge that he is, in fact, Palestinian. I felt hopeful about the wonderfully weird characters, from a brother who has suddenly discovered not only a wounded duckling who lives in their toilet, but also religious zeal (he attempts throughout to force his family to observe the Sabbath properly), to a belly-dancing sister and a downstairs neighbor with an unhealthily well-developed sense of "community." In an early scene in the film, Leni's brother purges the fridge of all pork products. Pulling a sausage out of the garbage, his mother cries "What is wrong with this?!?" "It's not kosher!" "Throwing food away isn't kosher!" she replies, dousing the sausage in dish soap and giving it a thorough scrubbing.

If only the whole movie had been this way, based on the subtle clash between absurd but plausible characters. Instead it quickly became one of my least favorite types of comedy: a farce which relies on the extreme and unrealistic stupidity of its characters to herd them into a series of ridiculous situations. If I am exclaiming "Why didn't [the protagonist] just do this???" then the film is a bit too much like a sitcom of the "Three's Company" ilk. Perhaps I should have known better when I saw that Netflix compared it to "Meet the Parents," a film which I despised with an unusual vigor. Too many groans, not enough laughs.

The second film sparked a rare outing to an actual movie theatre, an adventure I had been eagerly anticipating for some time: the new Pedro Almodovar feature, "Volver." The film is almost completely devoid of men, and what few there are manage to be moral cesspools. It is a drama of deception played out between three generations of women: the (ghostly) matriarch Irene and her senile sister Tia Paula, Irene's daughters Raimunda (played by a resplendent Penelope Cruz) and Sole, their friend Agustina, and Raimunda's teenage daughter Paula. For the most part the characters and performances are delicate, although from time to time the scenes had a staginess that I had never seen before in an Almodovar. This is not to be confused with his trademark theatricality, an exuberance which tempers grim plotlines.

For my tastes, however, "Volver" is not grim or weird enough, spending too much time reveling in the sentimentality of the mother-daughter relationship. I wanted MORE transvestites, MORE prostitutes, MORE tiny people climbing into giant genitals, MORE of all the trappings of quirk that make an Almodovar film so delightful, banishing the cloying traces of self-pity or -satisfaction. One scene in "Volver" delivers this, despite a staid cast of characters: the principal mourner return to her family's small town for an aunt's funeral, where she is instantly mobbed by a muttering, pawing gaggle of black-clad women, intent on performing sympathy and stealing her aunt's valuables. Almodovar shoots this from above (a favorite shot of his in this movie, perhaps best described as the "cleavage shot"), emphasizing the herd mentality, the sense of the mourner drowning under surges of condolence which go on and on amidst a mumbled cacophony of "Hail Mary"s. Gorgeous and excruciating.

Almodovar clearly loves all these women, both the characters and the actors. Late in the film, Irene settles down to watch an old movie, and Anna Magnani appears on the screen. Oh, I immediately though, how Almodovar would have loved to work with Magnani, that opulent and stern empress of melodramatic subtlety. What an ode to paradox that collaboration would have been.

"Only Human"/"Seres Queridos" (2004)
dir. Teresa Pelegri and Dominic Harari

"Volver" (2006)
dir. and written by Pedro Almodovar

Leave a Reply