Blanca Portillo in Volver (2006) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Amidst the recent revelry of The Class of 2006 - Supporting Actress Blogathon, StinkyLulu's longtime pal Criticlasm, in his blogathon post, called for all actressexuals to pay particular attention to the work of...

...Blanca Portillo in Volver (2006).

{alas, no scene counts or screentime stats until the dvd's out}

On Friday night, when Almodovar's latest actually landed in the ABQ, MrStinky and Lulu finally got the chance to marvel at Portillo's extraordinary performance.

In Volver, Blanca Portillo plays Agustina, the least flashy among the blossoms crowding Almodovar's bright bouquet of gorgeous female performances. At the outset, the seeming drabness -- in both affect and appearance -- of Portilla's Agustina sets her off almost immediately. As the other women chatter and buzz, their beauty and their boobs and their babble busting out all over the place, Portillo's Agustina just goes about in her quiet way, underscoring just how loud everyone else is. Hers is a stark presence. The shorn hair. The sad eyes. The inscrutable smile. The dutiful diligence. Almost immediately, in the film's earliest scenes, Portillo's Agustina becomes an unexpected but calming enigma. Wacky character detail bounces in every moment, in every burbled line of dialog, from every character in the film...but the mystery of Agustina quietly hovers, ultimately becoming a refining point of focus for the craziness of this gorgeous gaggle of women.

But who is she? Who is this nearly bald, beatific busybody? A nun? A dyke? A cancer patient? In a very simple way, as the film moves along, Portillo's Agustina emerges as all three. The only character in this all-female film without some known, defining moment of macho drama in her past or present, Portillo's Agustina is what feminist historians might term a woman-identified woman -- a woman devoted and attentive (in Agustina's case, almost to a fault) to her family of women relatives, friends and neighbors. Still living alone in a village from which nearly all the women of her generation have fled for lives in bigger (if not necessarily better) cities, Portillo's Agustina maintains a kind of vigil for her "departed" mother. (Several years earlier, Agustina's mother left the house one morning for a walk but never returned, a departure that happened to coincide with the fiery death of the parents of Penelope Cruz' Raimunda.) Portillo's Agustina inhabits this home as if it were a kind of memorial reliquary, with Agustina herself being only the most ambulatory of its contents. (Her departed mother's jewelry box of paste baubles, along with her forest of marijuana shrubs, are certainly among the more admired and revered. Meanwhile, the vestigial presence of Agustina's famewhoring absentee sister -- a reality tv star -- floats as a mist of gossipy whispers in the air.) Indeed when the woman across the way dies, Agustina's home is clearly the perfect place to hold the funeral, already outfitted as it is as a mausoleum for the living and the dead.

Portillo wryly convey's Agustina's abiding seriousness (note how no one, not even her childhood friends, refers to her by nickname or in the dimutive -- it's always Agustina) without brittling the character's innate delicacy and tenderness. Portillo's Agustina is a formidably humble woman, savvier to the ways of the world and -- more importantly -- the ways of her world than anyone gives her credit for being. As a result, director Almodovar's able to situate her as a kind if idiot savant of family secrets and innuendo. When she makes observations or asks questions - to Raimunda's daughter Paula (the gorgeously petulant Yohana Cobo) "You have your father's eyes" or to Sole (the brilliantly batty Lola DueƱas) "Your mother might appear to you" - Portillo's Agustina treads the line between naivete and cunning with thrilling ease. It's to the credit of director and actress both that Portillo's Agustina's level of sophistication remains an open question. Is she presciently intuitive? Or does she actually know? Neither Almodovar nor Portillo tells us exactly what Agustina knows or when she knows it. Rather, they allow Agustina's blend of simplicity and sophistication -- especially regarding secrets -- infuse the spirit of the film.

Nowhere is this duality -- Agustina's simplicity and sophistication -- as clear as in the grotesquery of Agustina's ambush appearance on a daytime talk show, in which she's asked to display "dirty laundry" in exchange, ostensibly, for medical treatment but also clearly to reconnect with her estranged sister. When Portillo's Agustina leaves the stage, violating gossip's transactional contract, it's neither a testament to her nobility nor proof of her simplicity. Like her childhood friend Raimunda (who, in the space of a hundred paces, adeptly negotiates an entire dinner of delicacies by playing on her knowledge of her neighbors' foibles), Agustina is not above using the dirt she has on people as a means of calling in favors. But as Portillo ably conveys, Agustina does not waste energy on frivolous pursuits (and she certainly doesn't see the point of doing it on tv). Portillo's Agustina may wander in her pursuit of answers, but she does so deliberately -- like a spirit seeking peace before its mortal vessel is rendered unable to provide assistance.

Portillo's Agustina is a woman who's long lived on the cusp of life and death, almost a living ghost. Hers is a luminous, ethereal, ghostly performance -- a generous and subtle gift of a performance in film just brimming with more flamboyant pleasures. There's more genius actressing at the edges in Volver than any film in recent memory and yet, even in a film as chock full of actressexual goodness as this, Blanca Portilla's performance as Agustina is the pungent, rare treasure -- certainly among 2006's best actressing at the edges.

And with Portillo it becomes clear: the best non-nominated Supporting Actress performances of the year -- Portillo, Biswas, Epps -- came from women who stand as the deceptively stolid witnesses of the principals' actions and who perform simple acts of emotional bravery that reorient the moral compasses of their respective films. (Barraza and Rose might be in this mix as well.) It's a curious phenomenon that these extraordinary performances are among the most conspicuously overlooked of 2006.


Borrego said...

So, ah, why is Lulu stinky?

goatdog said...

I just came back from seeing this, and I'm in complete agreement--there was a heck of a lot of great actressing going on (so refreshing to see a movie that doesn't revolve around men), but she was just perfect. I was struck by how animated she became when she was telling the story of Aunt Paula's death, how she managed to show that she knew that the occasion called for a performance (the dramatic storytelling, the hint of the supernatural, the little details that all the other women would expect) while also hinting that maybe that's the only place she really thrives, like you said "on the cusp of life and death". I was trying to balance that scene against her restraint for the rest of the film.