Forgiveness in Volver and Casablanca
The film Volver begins with a wonderful scene in which all the women of a small rural village scrub the tombstones of their dead. An unrelenting wind blows and threatens to overwhelm their efforts. But the women persist. What a stunning visual metaphor for the performance of the mundane tasks of life in the face of overwhelming grief.
We are told that these winds also fan fires that burn out of control in the village. Raimunda and Sole’s mother and father were consumed in such a fire. This is another powerful metaphor for rage and grief, the core of which is revealed in a stunning confession toward the end of the film.
After Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) clean their parent’s tomb along with Rainmunda’s teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). The women then visit Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and we learn Raimunda was estranged from her mother and Aunt Paula raised her.
Aunt Paula is nearly blind, mentally confused and forgetful. It’s a miracle she can still manage on her own. The old woman insists that she doesn’t. The girls’ dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) helps her out. When Aunt Paula dies, circumstances dictate that Sole attends the funeral alone. She returns with the ghost of their mother, Irene, in the trunk of her car.
Volver is a powerful story about how loss and grief are, at last, resolved. This is a very specific process that is present in every layer of laughter, horror, sadness and love in the film. It opens the path to forgiveness for Rainmunda and her mother.
We learn that Rainmunda’s father was a philanderer and a sexual predator. He sexually abused Rainmunda when she was a teenager. Rainmunda got pregnant and had her daughter, Paula, as a result. Rainmunda has kept this a secret all these years.
Rainmunda could never forgive her mother for not knowing what was happening and not protecting her. She turned her back on her mother and refused to have anything to do with her. In order to resolve her anger, grief and loss Rainmunda must revisit the past to:
1. See the situation as a whole
2. See her relative place in the situation
3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication
4. Cherish the positive
5. Let go of the rest
This process is key to resolving any loss and is outlined in great detail in The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman. It is an approach that is vital to any story about finding the courage to forgive.
Let’s look at how these steps are applied in Volver:
1. See the situation as a whole. As the film opens, Rainmunda is an overburdened and overworked mother, just as perhaps her own mother was. In a repetition of the past, her own husband drunkenly attacks Rainmunda’s daughter sexually. Rainmunda has no idea this sexual attack is coming; she could not prevent it and she could not stop it.
In a stunning confession later in the film, Irene admits that she discovered Rainmunda’s abuse by Raimunda’s father/Irene’s husband. Irene killed her husband and set the building on fire. Her husband was with another woman and everyone assumed that the woman’s body was Irene’s. Irene was forced to become a “ghost,” hiding in Aunt Paula’s large rambling home and caring for the woman who took care of her daughter.
Raimunda now sees the whole situation. Her mother loved her and was as fierce on her behalf as Rainmunda was on her daughter’s behalf.
2. See your relative place in the situation. Rainmunda couldn’t possibly understand her mother until faced with the horror of such a situation herself. Irene could not forgive herself until she saw how powerless her daughter was to prevent the same situation. Rainmunda and Irene now see one another in each other’s eyes. Each woman sees her relative place in the situation by seeing the relative place of the other.
3. Speak the unspoken emotional communication. The unspoken communication is, of course: “I love you. I have always loved you.” As mother and daughter begin to understand each other, they rediscover the deep bonds of love and sacrifice that connect them. The power of love and the powerlessness of love bind them together. Their hearts open and they forgive each other.
4. Cherish the positive. Rainmunda has a wonderful moment of cherishing the positive in a very funny scene about her mother’s farts. This is a stellar example of Almodovar’s quirky unsentimental portrait of these women. It is the kind of little memory that makes us love and cherish each other in all our weakness and human frailty.
5. Let go of the rest. When Augustina, their Aunt Paula’s long-time neighbor, becomes ill with cancer the women return again to the village. Irene slips into Augustina’s house and is greeted as a welcome ghost by Augustina, who is near death herself. Another grief in the story is about to be resolved.
The body that was found in the burned building was Augustina’s mother. Irene will be able to reassure Augustina that her mother didn’t disappear on a whim to leave her alone and unloved. Irene takes charge of Augustina’s care and slips back into her purgatory world as a ghost. Her daughters let Irene go to do her penance with a quiet and simple grace.
The movie’s title song, a tango made famous by Carlos Gardel is sung by Rainmunda (Cruz), Estrella Morente provides the dubbed vocals.
I am afraid of the encounter with the past that returns to confront my life. I am afraid of the nights that, filled with memories, shackle my dreams. But the traveler that flees sooner or later stops his walking. And although forgetfulness, which destroys all, has killed my old dream, I keep concealed a humble hope that is my heart’s whole fortune.
www.planet-tango.com/lyrics/volver.htm Lyrics translated by Walter Kane
Volver is a profoundly hopeful film, despite being filled with rape, murder, incest and death. The hope that is the heart’s whole fortune is the generosity that allows human beings to forgive. Forgiveness is our amazing power to reject the poison of the past, redeem our lives and reconstruct our bond with those whom we love. (For it is those we love who have the power to hurt us the most deeply.)
This same process is also at work in Casablanca, another powerful film about resolving anger, grief and loss. When Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks back into Rick Blaine’s life (Humphrey Bogart), Rick goes through the same five step process to resolve his anger, grief and loss.
1. Rick must see the situation as a whole. Rick learns Ilsa had to send him away to save him from the Nazis. She had to keep her marriage to Victor Laszlo secret to protect him and others in the resistance. She had to go to Victor (Paul Henreid), who was deathly ill outside of Paris.
2. Rick must see his relative place in the situation. Victor was the hope of the whole resistance movement. The resistance would die if Ilsa didn’t go to Victor and save him. Ilsa made the only choice she could possibly make under the circumstances.
3. Rick and Ilsa speak the crucial unsaid emotional communication. They love each other, they have always loved each other and their hearts will always belong to each other. Ilsa says: “I said I would never leave you.” Rick replies: “And you never will.”
4. Rick and Ilsa are able to cherish the positive: Rick says: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have it, we’d lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” By truly cherishing that time together they have rekindled and reclaimed their love for each other.
5. Rick is able to let go of the rest: Rick says: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He sends Ilsa away just as she sent him away. Rick says: “If you don’t go with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” “Where I’m going you can’t follow. What I’m going to do you can’t be any part of.”
Like Volver, Casablanca puts Rick in Ilsa’s situation. He now fully understands her choice. He validates Ilsa’s choice by making the same choice she did. Rick sends Ilsa away with Victor because Victor’s work in the resistance cannot continue without her.
Although they are not physically together Rick and Ilsa will live forever in each others’ hearts. Their grief and loss are resolved and they are both free to go on with their work and their lives.
Here’s how to implement these steps in your film:
1. See the situation as a whole. Have your character learn, discover or expose something that fills in a crucial missing piece in the story. Your character has made some assumption that was false, incomplete, misguided or ignorant. His or her bitterness and/or anger is built on an assumption that isn’t the whole truth. He or she doesn’t fully understand what was in the other person’s heart or what the full circumstances were. A revelation, discovery or realization fills in the gap.
2. See your relative place in the situation. Your character’s bitterness, anger, loss or grief stems from a single-minded and narrow personal perspective. His or her feelings or situation were just a part of what was going on at the time. Instead of seeing things just from a personal perspective, force your character to see the broader canvas. Put your character in the other person’s situation or position. Make that person’s choice more understandable by forcing your character to make a similar kind of choice. Force your character to “walk awhile in the other person’s shoes.”
3. Speak the unsaid emotional communication. This is some form of: “I love you. I have always loved you.” Those we love have the power to hurt us most deeply. Remembering and reclaiming that love is crucial to forgiveness. Please note: This communication is not “You have hurt me deeply.” It is a positive affirmation of the other person and how deeply the character feels about him or her.
4. Cherish the positive. There is a reason nearly everyone in the world knows the line: “We’ll always have Paris.” It’s because Rick’s line speaks to the power of positive memories. No one can take those transcendent moments from us. They remind us of all that was good, true, funny and/or wonderful about a person or time we loved. Force your character to embrace and cherish what was positive about the person or situation.
5. Let go of the rest. Forgiveness is not an emotion. It is an action. Forgiveness is letting go of the hurt, bitterness and/or disappointment of the past. Forgiveness demands that we let go of that which we cannot change. It requires us to be generous with ourselves and let go of the destructive bonds that bind and imprison us. Force your character to let go of bitterness and anger. Give your character an action that offers the gift of generosity.
I often ask my students to think of someone they love who has hurt them deeply. I ask them to think about how hard it would be to take each of those five steps themselves. Then I ask them to make that process equally as hard for their characters. When you force your character to confront and resolve loss you give an amazing gift of generosity to your audience. Volver gives that gift now. Casablanca has given that gift for decades. It is your turn next.