catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Universal language

I’m not Spanish.  I took four years of the language in high school, which was enough to make me aware of how much time and effort it would take to speak Spanish fluently.  Though I cannot understand more than basic advertisements on the city bus, something good has come of my exposure to the language, however.  And it is the same good that has come from all the language classes I have taken since high school. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit is that these lessons in the grammatical rules of foreign speech have initiated in me an enduring fascination for those cultures.  Which might explain why my Netflix queue often contains several Spanish films.  Another explanation for my love of Spanish films, however, might be that many of the more popular ones released in the last few years are often full of brightly colored images depicting strange and beautiful characters caught up in unlikely and surrealistic premises that reflect complex emotions and relationships. 

Yet another explanation is that there are a number of excellent Spanish filmmakers these days.   One of the more well known of the Spanish directors is Pedro Almodóvar.  I watched his most recent film, Volver, in a cinema complex known for playing independent and lesser-known foreign films. It was a return to the theatre for me after a long stretch of watching only DVDs.  It was also my first time seeing Almodóvar’s work on the big screen.  I had seen Bad Education, Talk to Her, All About My Mother and Live Flesh at home.  In the theatre, my film-watching experience was enriched by several Spanish speakers in the audience.  I envied them, especially at the beginning of the film when the dialogue was so rapid-fire that it felt like I was watching a tennis match going from the facial expressions of the characters at the top of the screen to the words at the bottom before the text disappeared again.  It would have been nice to be able to focus only on the images. 

As I tried to keep up with the hilarious exchanges between the apparently crazy characters, I thought about the advertisement that always begins each feature at this particular theatre.  "The Language of Film is universal," the ad states.  Coming from a chain of theatres, such a statement sounds kind of pompous and I often don’t give it much thought.  Usually, I just try to pick out words from the different languages that are spoken during the ad on the off chance that I someday find myself on a city bus in France, Italy or Japan and I’m asked for my opinion on film’s power to communicate.  But as Volver continued and the pacing of the dialogue slowed, I once again completely forgot that I was reading a movie and became immersed in the activities of these newfound acquaintances played by Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas and Blanca Portillo, among others.  There is something true in that advertisement, I thought.

Though Volver, translated in English as the infinitive verb "to return", is steeped in Spanish culture, the human experience it depicts is clearly communicated across linguistic and cultural barriers.  The crazy wind that blows throughout the film, the humongous windmills, the comedy of excessive kisses the women use to greet one another, all seem to come from a fluency that is not my own.  And yet, I was completely familiar with the women of this film (and just about all of the characters are women).  They are my mother and my grandmother and my sisters-in-law, in a way.  They are many of the women in my life and in other people’s lives.  And they are the women men often don’t see—the women who laugh at the smell of their mother’s farts and keep very heavy secrets along with many of the other burdens they are inclined to carry as women.

Pedro Almodóvar is not a woman.  No matter how many years he may spend studying women in his life or with his films, he will not be a woman.  But he clearly understands what is valuable, what is beautiful and strong about women.  Somewhere along the line, some woman or another must have provoked an enduring fascination that continues late into his film career.  Perhaps his own distance as a man, his own foreignness as an outsider to the personal experience of womanhood is what he’s trying to understand.  Maybe it’s something close to my own desires when I go to the theatre to watch a Spanish film.  Though Almodóvar retreads familiar ground with Volver, I was glad to go along with him once again on his own return to an enduring fascination.

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