In Volver, Women Reclaim Their Lives Through Their Kitchens
Image Credit: Still from Volver

This column is part of Slurrp's series, #TheSeasonedScreen, by culture writer Arshia Dhar.


MY maternal grandmother, whom I called Dimma, was a teenager when she got married to my grandfather—two decades elder to her—in the 1950s. A bright-eyed, brilliant girl whose poverty and circumstances did not allow her to pursue education beyond the age of 10, Dimma’s marriage into a privileged, landowning family allowed her access to a proper kitchen for the first time in her life that granted her a ticket to freedom. It became her playground, her school, her sojourn. Besides planning her everyday life there, she made some of her most important decisions in the kitchen—like that of going on a solo trip to the mountains in Mussoorie, while her toddlers stayed back in the care of her husband and elder sister for a fortnight. A revolutionary and frowned upon choice back in the day. Dimma even sewed in her kitchen, as she daydreamed about dressing her children up in clothes she wished she could’ve worn as a child, and she did it all perfectly. It was a limitless space for the desires of a woman who was orphaned very young, and had mothered and brought herself up to build a family and a community that made her infinite. She continues to be ever present in that space and beyond even 16 years after her death.

Purposive or not, her act turned the norms of the kitchen on their head, and subverted the ways in which it has historically colonised women. When I first watched Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish dramedy Volver (2006) around a decade ago, I could only see the spirit of my Dimma in its women who reclaimed and conquered their lives through their kitchens. We first meet the feisty Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) with her timid elder sister Sole (Lola Duenãs) and teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) at a graveyard in the middle of a dust storm somewhere in Madrid, where they are tending to the tombstones of their parents who had passed away in a fire three years ago. The three are soon joined by Agustina (Blanca Portillo)—their neighbour from their native village of Alcanfor de las Infantas in Spain’s La Mancha province—who regularly visits her own grave to keep it scrubbed and shiny, as if she were preparing for her death.

Death lingers in the air from the start, and follows the women into their homes, where we first meet Raimunda and Sole’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) in their village home, blind as a bat, suffering from dementia, but unwilling to solicit help from her nieces, even from Raimunda whom she had raised.

The home smells of freshly baked wafers and scrumptious food that lights up the screen, spurring Raimunda and Sole to wonder out loud as to how their doddery little aunt could not only cook up such a toothsome feast, but also pack a picnic in perfectly-labelled Tupperware boxes for them. “How do you manage your meals?” a concerned Raimunda inquires. “Agustina brings me bread, your mother does the cooking,” she answers, nonchalantly. They, however, don’t make much of her senile-speak, until Sole walks up to the floor above and finds a sparkly clean cycle that doesn’t seem unused.

On their drive back home to Madrid, the sisters blame the rogue east winds for Aunt Paula’s diseased brain. Soon after, Raimunda and young Paula reach home to a diseased man, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), an alcoholic whose eyes graze between his daughter’s thighs. He orders his wife to pass on another can of beer, while he is halfway through one. “Are you kidding me?” Raimunda exclaims. “Haven’t you had enough? You have to go to work tomorrow,” she sighs, to which he replies that he is free the next day, and even the day after, as he had lost his job.

The scene plays out at the borders of the family’s boxy little living room and kitchen, where Raimunda paces around while doing the dishes or heating the food, while the camera is almost voyeuristically lodged above her cleavage, or at her feet pressing open the trash can lid. It reduces her to truncated parts that perform household duties, which Paco considered emasculating chores.

When Raimunda loses sleep wondering if she should consider doing a second job on weekends to make ends meet, Paco peeks into young Paula’s room as she undresses. He then forces himself upon his wife in bed while fantasising about their daughter. The next day, when Raimunda is at work, he forces himself upon young Paula in the kitchen, claiming that it’s okay since he isn’t her biological father. She kills him with the kitchen knife and leaves him to bleed to death by the kitchen sink.

Raimunda, upon returning home, gets to troubleshooting immediately. “Remember, I killed him, and you saw nothing. You weren’t here. It’s very important you remember that,” she tells her daughter, as her tears begin to dry up.

She scrubs the kitchen clean and wraps Paco in a blanket, when the doorbell rings. It’s Emilio (Carlos Blanco), owner of the neighbouring restaurant, who leaves its keys with her as he plans to go out of town for a while. Raimunda pounces on the opportunity, drags his corpse to the restaurant, and dumps it into a freezer. It is at this point that a reversal of her fortunes occurs. After all, the term “volver” is Spanish for “going back,” or “return to,” and with the pest of Paco—who ate into the lives of these women—now gone, the gates to abundance had been thrown open for them. The metaphor of “returning” is further extended to and subsumed within the idea of ‘reclamation’ throughout the film, more of which we will explore soon.

However, for now we learn that the very next day, a film crew stumbles upon the eatery, and Raimunda grabs the offer of cooking for a group of 30. It brings her money, joy, and a sense of control. When she runs out of cash to buy supplies, her neighbours—all women—lend their generous helping hands. “I need a kilo of sausages,” she tells one of them as she passes her by on the road. “Oh, and also, if you have something sweet?” Raimunda asks, to which the lady says that she has three boxes of melt-in-the-mouth cookies at home. She agrees to sell them to Raimunda on credit, unquestioningly. The spirit of sisterhood in Volver is nourishing, trusting, and unconditional. It lies in direct opposition to the masculine forces that are largely disruptive in this brutishly patriarchal universe.

We watch Raimunda cook up a storm, with the crew returning for a second round the next day. It propels her to take up her catering business again, as her dead husband lies forgotten in the backroom freezer. Raimunda has only just begun to reclaim her life.

In the meantime, Aunt Paula has died in her village home, which Sole learns from Agustina. The latter tells Sole that their mother’s spirit had informed her about aunt’s death, and had even left the door to her home open for Agustina to enter. When Sole arrives among their greedy neighbours, who push and shove her to hug her in mock grief—with the sole intention to usurp Aunt Paula’s belongings—she suddenly encounters her mother. She freezes, and then runs as fast as her trembling legs would carry her.

Upon reaching home, Sole discovers her mother, Irene—or what she thinks is her unsatisfied spirit on a mission—in the boot of her car. Irene decides to live with Sole until asked to leave; all she wants is forgiveness from Raimunda, the daughter she abandoned after her husband left for Venezuela.

Sole paints her mother’s hair red, gives her a Russian identity, and employs her at her illegal home salon where Irene pretends to not understand Spanish in front of her clients. She reveals herself to her granddaughter Paula when she comes visiting, but hides under the bed every time Raimunda is around.

On the other hand, Agustina has been diagnosed with cancer. As her dying wish, she pleads with Raimunda, who visits her at the hospital, to ask Irene’s spirit about the truth behind her mother’s disappearance. Raimunda isn’t convinced. She has bigger concerns to address, like laying her husband to rest by his favourite river in the outskirts of Madrid. With the help of her neighbour Regina (María Isabel Díaz), who isn’t informed of the contents of the freezer, Raimunda digs up a hole and shoves the freezer into it. The dead, cold weight had finally been lifted off her chest.

The next day, Agustina shows up at the restaurant and reveals some dark secrets to an unsuspecting Raimunda, who had blamed the vile winds and cancer for the former’s distressed state of mind. “The day your parents died in the fire, my mother disappeared. Don’t you think that’s a strange coincidence?” Agustina implores Raimunda, adding that her mother had left home that morning to join Raimunda’s father at their hut. “My mother was having an affair with your father…I once heard your mother and mine having a fight. She told my mother she can keep your father, she did not care or envy her, because he was born to hurt the women who loved him,” Agustina says, joint in hand, perched on a stool in the backroom of the restaurant. 

Kitchens are a sacred refuge for the Volver women and their darkest secrets. What Agustina couldn’t successfully convey to Raimunda at a hospital, she could partially accomplish at the restaurant, where the familiar presence and scents of food cushion the sharper edges of reality even for someone who had lost their appetite to a terminal ailment. In Almodovar’s universe, food is a feminine and feminist apparatus that its women have redeemed from a hypermasculine society as their own. It is by design that their lives change over a meal or a cooking session, and not as coincidence.

Soon after, Raimunda finds out about her mother, who admits to having been negligent of her daughter’s upbringing. She confesses to have found out only from Aunt Paula that Raimunda was raped by her husband, resulting in the birth of young Paula who was both her daughter and her sister. When she later realised her husband was having an affair with Agustina’s mother, she set the hut on fire with the two of them inside. But everyone thought it was she who had died. For the next few weeks, Irene was on the run, “living like an animal,” until she came back to Aunt Paula, whose dementia allowed her to believe that nothing had changed. In a village as superstitious as theirs, it was easy for Irene to blend in in her phoney afterlife, and look after Aunt Paula in her final days.

In the ultimate sequence, we see the three generations of mothers and daughters cook in their ancestral kitchen, reuniting over food and forming a cohesive family for the first time in their lives. There’s no man in sight; they don’t need one. Irene also decides to look after Agustina for the remainder of her life. “It’s the least I can do after killing her mother,” she tells Raimunda, as they hug each other and vow to repair their bond, one uncomfortable truth and warm meal at a time.

In Volver, the women build homes and resurrect burnt bridges through food, with the kitchens at the centre of this life force that keeps their literal spirits from dying, much like my Dimma’s still comes alive every time her favourite spices simmer merrily in her kitchen—the only place that embraced her in life and death alike.