VOLVER (Sony Pictures Classics)
IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (Typecast Releasing with HBO)

It happens to almost every successful director, and it has certainly happened to Pedro Almodóvar: he has entered the Age of the Larynx. In this age, sheer talk--the interview--becomes as much a part of a director's life as anything other than directing itself. Almodóvar interviews flood the press, especially just before a new film appears. He is more supple and funny than most directors can be, but even he can indulge in interview lingo. (From a recent one: "What always attracts me, and it's almost a physical need, is a project that's completely different from my previous one." And: "I enjoy the transparency of neorealism.") Oddly, despite our experience, several of those interviews apropos of Almodóvar's new film, VOLVER, made us expect a film of his highest quality, which is high indeed. Volver disappoints.

After all Almodóvar's interview talk about returning to his roots (some of the film takes place in a village), the three months of rehearsal with his cast (no better ensemble playing than what we can see in any well-made picture), the very serious shopping and hair-styling (the usual amusing Almodóvar glitz), and the hints of spiritual depth, we get a porridge-consistency story, full of explanations rather than drama. It all hangs on two final revelations--one of them a reminder of Polanski's Chinatown and the other about a woman's return from the dead. (The title means "to return.") And this comedy-drama about people we are supposed to like allows them to murder a man, bury him, and forget about him: nothing whatever is done about the crime. Perhaps it is because he was male, and a beast; and not unusually in his work, Almodóvar's chief sympathy is with women. That unlucky man stumbled into the wrong film.

Penélope Cruz, gorgeous and talented, plays a restaurant employee, the mother of an adolescent girl, the wife of a louse, the sister of a hairdresser, and the niece of a decrepit aunt. All these factors and more are continually stirred around for most of two hours until we reach the plot tricks that clear up the difficulties. In transit these toings-and-froings are handled--despite the sludgy story--with Almodóvar's dexterity and also with typical Almodóvar settings and dress that just manage to be realistic instead of extravagant. But throughout we keep waiting for the real Almodóvar film, and it never arrives.

He made his reputation with pictures that crackled and spat and sliced and mocked the strict conventions of contemporary Spain--including the church.These films were refreshing in their daring, their chuckling vengeance, and, basically, the realization that without all these oppressions he wouldn't be the artist he had become. In Volver, despite a few dabs of what is meant to be candor, I could see only one real glimpse of the old Almodóvar. At one point, Cruz visits her sister and says she has to piss. (That's the word in the subtitles.) We then get a three- or four-second shot of Cruz on the toilet. That shot is completely extraneous to the film, but we can almost hear Almodóvar deciding to throw a snippet to his old-time fans.

Most of the picture, however, is soap opera done by an artist--plotty complications, plotty illness (a woman develops cancer), petty quarrels, equally petty reconciliations--almost as if Almodóvar were showing us that Douglas Sirk, another artist turned soapist, is not forgotten. Our disappointment is not that he has left his earlier mode, but that he left it without conviction and drive. Instead, we feel only that he has exhausted the spirit that launched him and is now making up stories to keep busy. I suppose that if he keeps on in this latter-day manufacturing vein, we can expect more lengthy interviews.

An admiring word about Cruz. She seems to me the present-day film figure closest to Sophia Loren, very much a person of a particular culture but with global appeal--and with humor, warmth, extraordinary beauty, sufficient vulgarity, and sufficient class.

James Longley is an American maker of documentaries, now in his mid-thirties, who studied film in the United States and in Moscow and in 2002 made a film about Palestine called Gaza Strip. His new film is IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, a considerable achievement because of what it does and what, as Longley knew, it could not do.

He spent two years in Iraq, apparently accompanied only by translators. (His picture is well shot, sometimes even lovely; he acknowledges help in all the technical work after the three hundred hours of film were done, but the actual shooting is his.) His intent was clear. He says in his notes (and it is evident in the film): "It was never my intention to make a `war documentary.' I wanted to make a film about Iraq, the people of Iraq." A war documentary would, in some ways, have been simpler.

For his own purposes, Longley divided Iraq in three parts--or, rather, he accepted the three existing divisions: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. For part one of his film he lived in a Sunni district of Baghdad and concentrated on an eleven-year-old auto mechanic, slipping into the lives of the boy, his employer, acquaintances. For part two he went to the Shiite region of Najaf and became friends with a young man who is the head of a nationalist organization.Through him, Longley followed all the inevitable ramifications. Part three inevitably was in Kurdish country. Longley lived in a hamlet near an oil plant. Here his method was to avoid groups and to concentrate on ordinary folk--farmers, traders, and so on. Here he found the strongest pro-American feeling.

Every moment of Longley's film is interesting, and the more we watch, the more clearly we realize that the film cannot solve anything for us. Some Iraqis love America; some think America is a curse and cannot wait for our troops to leave. Some hated Saddam Hussein; some wish he were back again, because at least the streets were safe--from individual criminals, if not from Saddam himself.

So we are left with a copious collection of intimacies, some remarkable faces, some affecting tiny details of daily life, some poignancies, some astonishing backwardness--all filmed well. And we are also left with the old nagging questions about documentaries. Who pointed the camera? Who did the editing?Whose truth amid the available truths, none of which is complete, are we getting? One point, however, we are certainly convinced of. Longley is a film-maker of intelligence and empathy.

This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.