2006’s version of Telluride was underwhelming in many ways, but never more so than for managing to find a way to make world-class director Pedro Almodovar boring. I never thought it was possible given his previous efforts, but for the first time, I felt as if I was watching an Almodovar film that could have been directed by anyone. About 20 minutes in, I realized with a jolt that had the famous name not been attached and the language not been Spanish, there’s a good chance I would have walked out. As expected, the movie is bursting with bold colors and passionate performances, but everything is too controlled, as if he thought it would be a good idea to stray from Sirk-like melodrama for a change and lighten the overall load. In essence, the film was neither bold nor passionate enough, and while a single prostitute makes an appearance, the story needed her more often, as well as a few dozen other eccentrics, maniacs, and freaks. Almodovar’s films have always been about risks to the point of absurdity, but here, he’s just too accessible for his own good.
Penelope Cruz (inexplicably one of the festival’s honorees) plays Raimunda, a spicy little number who works hard to make ends meet while raising her sassy daughter. When we first meet Raimunda, she is taking care of her mother’s grave and visiting her aunt, a half-blind, nearly dead old woman who is trying to live on her own as best she can. Soon, she does in fact die, and a strange woman pays a visit claiming to be Raimunda’s mother, despite allegedly being dead and buried herself. She’s tucked away for a time, but then comes clean to her daughter, explaining that she killed her husband and the mother of another character, Agustina, in order to execute a long-overdue revenge for infidelity. After the murders, she went into hiding, until such time she felt comfortable appearing before her loved ones. Agustina is not aware of what happened to her mother, believing that she had disappeared, and having no clue that she was killed in a fire for sleeping around. In the telling, it sounds zany and crazy, and even a little fun, but the actual execution is labored, pointless, and the polar opposite of entertaining. It all seemed so defiantly ordinary; sadly lackluster and inert.
Initially, we think the story is going to pay more attention to the fate of Raimunda’s husband, an abusive, drunken lout who attacks Raimunda’s daughter and is knifed to death for his trouble. She does stick him in a freezer and, with the aid of the prostitute, bury him in a large hole, but it all seems an afterthought, and not at all revealing of anything important. They are mere events on a screen — simple, unmotivated behavior — not spontaneous actions of living, breathing people. Raimunda also works in a restaurant, feeding a film crew on location for a shoot, but this too seems tacked on. In every Almodovar film prior to this one, I felt as if the characters had depth, shading, and hidden secrets under the surface that could both shock and enlighten. Here, they talk a great deal, and Cruz shows off her stupendous rack, but it all doesn’t add up to a picture of heft and weight. Sure, it might have been a charming slice of life, or a way to highlight the need for some to confront past demons, but we’re never brought into these families in a way that justifies the output of time. They remain distant, detached, and inconsequential. With Almodovar, I expect a circus, a wild party, and a soap opera, not simply the latter.