Penélope Cruz as Raimunda
Carmen Maura as Abuela Irene
Lola Dueñas as Sole
Blanca Portillo as Agustina
Yohana Cobo as Paula
Chus Lampreave as Tía Paula
Antonio de la Torre as Paco
Carlos Blanco as Emilio
María Isabel Díaz as Regina
Neus Sanz as Inés
Leandro Rivera as Auxiliar
Yolanda Ramos as Presentadora TV
Carlos García Cambero as Carlos
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest will leave you with a smile on your face and a tear in your eye that cinema can be this gorgeous and glorious.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a high-strung housewife dealing with an angry teen daughter (Yohanna Cobo) and a good-for-nothing husband, as well as a wacky family including a single sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and their terminally ill friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). When Sole discovers that their mother (Carmen Maura) did not die in a fire as originally presumed, she decides to hide that fact from Raimunda, who is more concerned with covering up the accidental death of her husband.
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is a true original, something easily conveyed by his latest masterpiece “Volver,” a personal movie that retains his unique sensibilities, while making them more accessible to those who haven’t yet discovered Spain’s eccentric genius. The story revolves around the relationships between a group of related women and how a tragedy from their past comes back to haunt them when a woman thought dead makes a startling return. No, Pedro isn’t making ghost or zombie movies just yet, because this is another of his dramatic comedies that effortlessly mixes genres in a way that makes it hard to classify. (The term “dramedy” seems too déclassé as a label for Almodóvar’s work.)
It opens conveniently in a cemetery where Raimunda is visiting the graves of her parents who died in a fire years earlier, accompanied by her daughter, her sister Sole and their terminally ill friend Agustina. It’s not really an unusual start for an Almodóvar film, but we learn more about these women and their relationships during a visit to Raimunda’s senile aunt, who passes away shortly afterwards. While attending the funeral, Sole discovers that their presumably dead mother has secretly been caring for their aunt for years, but Raimunda is too busy with a crisis at home when her teen daughter stabs her lecherous drunken father and kills him. To cover-up the accidental murder, Raimunda places her husband’s body in the freezer of a vacant restaurant she’s been managing for a friend, but decides to reopen it when given a moneymaking opportunity to cook for a film crew shooting locally.
“Volver,” loosely translated as “coming back,” is Almodóvar’s most complex film in terms of the characters and their concurrent storylines. Most of the “action” takes place either in Madrid, where Raimunda and Sole live, or in the superstitious village of La Mancha where they grew up. The fact that it’s also where the director grew up gives the story a nice personal touch. Although Almodóvar revives some of the themes from past films, “Volver” is more about family, returning his focus to the women who were nearly non-existent in his last movie, “Bad Education.” It’s a joyous story full of life and reflective of death, with each and every scene filled with as much dialogue as humanly possible, as the words flow from the characters’ mouths. Most of the backstory is told during these conversations, rather than using flashbacks. Every time you’ve settled into this flow, there’s a turning point that changes the tone and direction, like the magical moment when Carmen Maura first shows up on screen, seemingly as the ghost of Raimunda’s mother, and the covered-up murder reminds one of the ever-present Hitchcock influence.
In some ways, “Volver” is like a cinematic soap opera, though it rises above such questionable influences by injecting a healthy dose of comedy into the drama. Some of it is subtle, like the way the women rapidly peck at each other’s cheek as a greeting, while other elements achieve sitcom levels of humor such as the way Sole hides her mother’s identity from others by pretending she’s a Russian hairdresser. As quirky as this humor gets at times, it never seems fake or contrived.
Having fully matured as an actress since starring in Almodóvar’s “All About Her Mother,” Penélope Cruz is absolutely delightful as the high-strung Raimunda, a character whose anger towards her presumably dead mother is transferred to her teen daughter, played by newcomer Yohana Cobo, a terrific third generation of “Pedro Diva.” More importantly, “Volver” marks the return of Carmen Maura, reuniting with Pedro after almost 20 years, playing the absent mother with a smile that wins you over instantly, and Lola Dueñas is equally captivating as Cruz’s flighty single sister, able to carry her own subplot before it comes together with Cruz’s story in the end.
Almodóvar reunites with his “Bad Education” cinematographer José Luis Alcaine to make every single scene and shot look stunning, but most of all, Alcaine makes all of Pedro’s women look gorgeous, though it’s surprising how often the camera dwells on their physical attributes, as they’re wrapped in the most vividly colorful outfits. The rest of Team Pedro, including his regular composer Alberto Iglesias and editor José Salcedo, have become a finely-tuned machine at blending Almodóvar’s distinctive sense of style with cinematic techniques from ’50s and ’60s classics to create something easily absorbed by anyone new to Almodóvar’s work.
With so much exposition, it’s not hard to deduce a few of the dark secrets from Raimunda’s past, but there are so many wonderful moments on the road to that resolution that Almodóvar’s sly reveal of what might have been an infuriating twist is still highly satisfying. More than anything, “Volver” is a movie about finding closure, something desperately needed by all the characters, and one has to presume that Almodóvar is able to find some of his own by making this film.
The Bottom Line:
Fans of Pedro Almodóvar’s last few movies are not likely to be disappointed by his latest movie. He has made his most accessible film to date without compromising on his unique method of creating vivid characters, stories and situations, so however you define the term, Almodóvar’s latest is another modern classic.
Volver opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 3.