The Dead Return to Comfort Us

Maura, Cruz in “Volver”

Film Friday

This past week I finished teaching a continuing education course on the films of Pedro Almodovar and emerged liking the quirky Spanish director more than ever. While his early films, like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, were off beat and pop-art colorful, he has since added heart to his work. As a result, even though his movies remain as unpredictable as ever, one walks out of a number of them profoundly moved. This was true of the last three that we saw—All about My Mother, Speak to Her, and, this past Tuesday, Volver.


What comes through in Volver (the title is the name of a popular song and means “going back” or “returning”) is the strength of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), who will do anything to protect her daughter—including cover up her killing of her father (or, as the daughter later learns, her step-father) when the man tries to rape her. Raimunda’s up-beat determination is inspiring.

But (and if you can, watch the film before you let my spoilers ruin the suspense for you) we learn by the end that no one is self-sufficient and that everyone needs someone to confide in. We eventually learn that Raimunda’s daughter is also her sister, Raimunda herself having been raped by her father when she was a girl. While her mother was alive, Raimunda grew away from her for not protecting her, but then, when Irene died in a mysterious fire in the arms of her husband, Raimunda idealizes their love.

Only Irene didn’t die in the fire but instead set it, burning up her husband and his mistress after learning what he had done to their daughter. Presumed dead, Irene lives as a ghost, taking care of her sister (who has dementia so no one believes her when she says that Irene is caring for her). This allows the plot to provide us with two very powerful fantasies: (1) if the dead could talk to us, they would apologize to us for the wrong they did and (2) rather than abandoning us with their death, our parents are still present to us and will care for us. Raimunda deserves to be cared for by her “dead” mother and, by the end of this film, caring is what she gets.

The film is very skillful in the way that it probes the thin membrane between the living and the dead. Even though there is a perfectly rational explanation for everything that happens, the film still has an aura of mystery, as though Irene is moving between the two worlds. To set the mood, the film opens with widows cleaning their husbands’ graves while a strong wind—spirits at work?—blows through the town. The townspeople believe in ghosts and who’s to say that they’re wrong.

In the powerful scene where Raimunda sings the title song “Volver,” we see Irene secretly watching her. She rises up when she hears the following lyrics:

We parted some time ago
but my moment to lose has come
you were very right
I listen to my heart
and I’m dying for going back

And going back, going back, going back
to your arms once more
I’ll get to your whereabouts
I know how to lose, I know how to lose
I want to go back, go back go back

Though we’re pretty sure by this time that Irene is no ghost, nevertheless the scene seems to indicate that our strong longing can call the dead back to us.

There are two scenes in the film I find particularly wonderful. In one, Raimunda has just learned that her mother is still alive, at which point she runs away, dragging her daughter (who already knows about Irene) behind her. For the first time, her daughter sees her indomitable mother break down, and she urges her to go back. It is as though, for a moment, she is the nurturing one, urging a reconciliation between the present and the past, the living and the dead.

In the final scene, meanwhile, Irene leaves the house to care for their next-door-neighbor, a sympathetic woman who is dying of cancer. (The woman all but sees Irene as a ghost coming back to care for her.) Panicked that Irene, only recently found, will vanish once again, Raimunda goes running to the neighbor’s and is assured by her mother that there will be plenty of time for them to talk and that she wants to hear all that Raimunda has to tell her. The mother that Raimunda rejected because of the rape has come back to her.

In the plot and the handling of the subject matter, Almodovar has found a compelling way to assure us that love is more powerful than death. With the anniversary of my own son’s death approaching (on Monday), it is a comforting message.

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  • Barbara

    Dear Robin,

    You and Julia will be in my thoughts and prayers this week. About the “thin membrane”. My godson’s grandmother died before he was born, but he “knew” her from pictures. When he was 2-3 and his mom was going through an especially trying time, he would turn to a hill outside church after service and wave. When she asked him why, he said “Grand Ma Mitten” which was his name for her, although there was no one there anyone else could see. After a time he stopped (the crisis had subsided) and when asked where she was, he replied “She went home”. He also told her that before he came to his parents (he was adopted) Grand Ma Mitten took care of him in the orphanage. Blessing, dear friend.

  • Robin Bates

    Barbara, your wonderful story reminds me of a great poem by Wordsworth. My son Toby, who was 16 when Justin died and continued to have intuitive encounters with him after the death, loves this poem because it gets at how thin the membrane is:

    We Are Seven

    By William Wordsworth

    ———A simple Child,
    That lightly draws its breath,
    And feels its life in every limb,
    What should it know of death?

    I met a little cottage Girl:
    She was eight years old, she said;
    Her hair was thick with many a curl
    That clustered round her head.

    She had a rustic, woodland air,
    And she was wildly clad:
    Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
    —Her beauty made me glad.

    “Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
    How many may you be?”
    “How many? Seven in all,” she said,
    And wondering looked at me.

    “And where are they? I pray you tell.”
    She answered, “Seven are we;
    And two of us at Conway dwell,
    And two are gone to sea.

    “Two of us in the church-yard lie,
    My sister and my brother;
    And, in the church-yard cottage, I
    Dwell near them with my mother.”

    “You say that two at Conway dwell,
    And two are gone to sea,
    Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
    Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

    Then did the little Maid reply,
    “Seven boys and girls are we;
    Two of us in the church-yard lie,
    Beneath the church-yard tree.”

    “You run about, my little Maid,
    Your limbs they are alive;
    If two are in the church-yard laid,
    Then ye are only five.”

    “Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
    The little Maid replied,
    “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
    And they are side by side.

    “My stockings there I often knit,
    My kerchief there I hem;
    And there upon the ground I sit,
    And sing a song to them.

    “And often after sun-set, Sir,
    When it is light and fair,
    I take my little porringer,
    And eat my supper there.

    “The first that dies was sister Jane;
    In bed she moaning lay,
    Till God released her of her pain;
    And then she went away.

    “So in the church-yard she was laid;
    And, when the grass was dry,
    Together round her grave we played,
    My brother John and I.

    “And when the ground was white with snow,
    And I could run and slide,
    My brother John was forced to go,
    And he lies by her side.”

    “How many are you, then,” said I,
    “If they two are in heaven?”
    Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
    “O Master! we are seven.”

    “But they are dead; those two are dead!
    Their spirits are in heaven!”
    ’Twas throwing words away; for still
    The little Maid would have her will,
    And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

  • Barbara

    What a lovely poem: I’ve never seen it before! Many thanks!

  • I have been a fan of Pedro Almodovar since my early 20s when I first saw Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down.

    Volver is one of my favorites, with High Heels and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown right up there.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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