Almodóvar plumbs the feminine mystique — again
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
VOLVER: Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Music, Alberto Iglesias. Cinematography, José Luis Alcaine. Starring Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo and Yohana Cobo. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. R. 121 minutes.
Pedro Almodóvar, in the production notes for Volver, says that the most difficult thing about the film "has been writing its synopsis." He surely exaggerates, but not entirely. Volver is complicated in story and tone (a complication assisted by Alberto Iglesias' playful, sometimes spooky score). It's a funny drama, a dramatic romp, a story in which seemingly large events turn out to be small and the smallest moments are quietly laden with meaning. It's also a return, after the director's more male-centric Bad Education, to a loving look at the relationships between women, particularly with men out of the picture.
Volver centers on Raimunda, played by a vibrant Penélope Cruz decked out with a padded rear, upswept hair and a ton of dark eyeliner. Raimunda, a young wife and mother, is perpetually striding about (in heels) as she juggles work and family — extended family, in the form of her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), fading aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a somber woman who likes to indulge in an occasional joint in memory of her hippie mother. Raimunda's parents were killed in a fire some years back; her husband is a layabout and her sweet, skinny daughter, also named Paula (Yohana Cobo), appears as normal as they come.
One thing Volver has in spades is sympathy. Whether it's for an ailing woman trying to solve a mystery about her mother or for a daughter who has to learn to forgive her own mother – and yes, it is a lot to do with mothers — Almodóvar's film is warmly understanding, creating a world in which the mostly female characters interact with real grace and real awkwardness. In this world (dubbed "Pedrostan" by A.O. Scott in The New York Times), dealing with a man's death is far easier than coming to terms with the past, though the two events have more of a connection than is initially apparent.
At times, Volver's plot dances with a soapy sort of melodrama. There's a too-easy corpse disposal, and when, in the end, many secrets are revealed, the parallels between one generation of women and the next are believable but almost too tidy. But you can take this as simply an aspect of Pedrostan, which might be better described as "slightly other than real" rather than "fantastical." Mostly, Volver is hyper-domestic, observing dishwashing, hair cutting, floor scrubbing and the preparation of food with an eye that indicates these are beautiful, necessary tasks (and ones done with an almost frightful efficiency by Raimunda).
Almodóvar's palette of bright colors is on cheery display here in everything from young Paula's bright red top to the peppers Raimunda chops for lunch. And Cruz herself seems on display, her costumes cut tight, the camera accenting her cleavage and curves. It's a fantastic role for Cruz, who uses the regal bearing of a screen queen to great effect in such an intimate film. The contrast with Raimunda's sister, Sole, who tries gamely to be cheery but is clearly quite lonesome, is striking. But to focus solely on Cruz is to overlook the performance of Carmen Maura, who plays a visitor from the past. Maura, who starred in Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and hasn't worked with the director since, has a warm, open face, and she carries herself with a lovely uncertainty that gradually turns to confidence as her place in the story becomes clear. Cruz is Volver's star; Maura, whose character embodies the title's English translation, "to return," carries the film's heart.
Volver opens Friday, Jan. 26 at the Bijou.