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Singing ‘Volver’

In response to:

The Women of Pedro Almodóvar from the March 1, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In his fine, wide-ranging look at Almodóvar’s work as filmmaker and his review of Volver [“The Women of Pedro Almodóvar,” NYR, March 1], Daniel Mendelsohn says in passing that “the only bit of trashy pop culture” to appear in the new movie is the episode of the daytime talk show, in which Agustina requests information about her mother.

I must add yet one more instance to Mendelsohn’s astute observation. The title itself alludes to a highly suggestive icon of “pop culture,” though not necessarily of the “trashy” kind. What Mendelsohn refers to in his essay as “a song called ‘Volver’” is actually a renowned Argentine tango, made famous in the 1930s by the legendary singer Carlos Gardel. Any educated denizen of the Hispanic world will immediately have recognized the title as a musical allusion.

And yet, as Almodóvar often does, he gets a joke out of a musical echo. Hispanic moviegoers probably expected the tango to appear somewhere in the film. (I certainly did.) Well, the song finally shows up—sung by Penélope Cruz as a flamenco piece! The Spanish director plays with our expectations and then can’t resist finding humor even in the rendition of a classic tango.

Gene H. Bell-Villada

Associate Professor

Department of Romance Languages

Williams College

Williamstown, Massachusetts

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

I am very grateful to Professor Bell-Villada for bringing my and my readers’ attention to an important aspect of Almodóvar’s film, of which I was unaware. And I am, of course, pleased to think that this additional piece of cultural information confirms my suspicions about what the director is up to in his latest film. Indeed it seems to me that the transformation of “Volver” (the song) from a tango into a soulful flamenco performance is, rather than being a mere joke, entirely in keeping with this film’s very serious artistic project of recasting slick old material in new, emotionally more profound forms.

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