Pedro Almodóvar's Volver is a witty and woozy paean to the off-kilter wonder that is Spanish womanhood. Again. At this stage in his career, one isn't expecting too much else from Almodóvar than further explorations of the semi-camp, lightly magical territory that he has staked out as his own for close to three decades now; but that doesn't mean he can't still astonish. Unlike Woody Allen, who also works within a similarly rich but limited set of constraints, Almodóvar manages to make each film seem like an entirely new creation.
Volver starts with a wonderfully lyrical scene in which the old women of a rural village clean the headstones in a graveyard during a fantastic windstorm -- the blowing leaves quickly render absurd any cleaning. The village is a slightly unreal place anyway, populated mostly by the very old (in actuality, a common occurrence in Spain) and known far and wide for the wind, which is reputed to drive the inhabitants insane. The stars are a pair of sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lole Dueñas) who long ago decamped for Madrid, much like Almodóvar himself did as a child (he shot the village scenes in his hometown of La Mancha). The sisters' parents died in a fire years back, but they return on occasion to check in on their elderly aunt, Paula (Chus Lampreave, who has mellowed here somewhat since her hilariously venomous turn in Almodóvar's 1995 film The Flower of My Secret). They still feel that tenuous link to their ancestral village, but with their parents dead and unfulfilling lives in the city, the two seem stuck in a hazy netherworld, home in neither place.
The title of the film ("Coming Back") is not just about going home, it's also about the return of the past to present-day lives, something Almodóvar handles in rather straight-forward fashion here when Sole sees their dead mother (played by the comically serene Carmen Maura) walking and talking. Sole lets this surprisingly vibrant ghost move into her apartment but doesn't clue in Raimunda, who's having problems of her own with a drunk husband and sullen 12-year daughter. Almodóvar's lightly fantastic story veers into more of a Mildred Pierce-style vein of comic noir with the fiercely stubborn Raimunda, who, after a tragedy and some fortuitous accidents, sets up shop in a briefly vacated restaurant next door, enlisting many of her neighborhood friends in the process. Plot wrinkles arise with Raimunda trying to figure out how to keep her business going and Sole going to increasingly extravagant lengths to hide her ghost mother from the world. Secrets are revealed. Death and madness dance at the story's outskirts. And there's a song, of course.
There are many things to like about Volver, most especially Cruz, who is stronger and more assured here than normal, shrugging off that blank sex goddess mantle which enshrouds her in most English-language roles. Playing a woman who's cut herself off from a painful past and bewildering present, her Raimunda is extravagantly self-reliant to the point of forgetting that she has anything to do in life but survive. Lest the film become a self-important ode to strength and survivability, Almodóvar crowds in numerous other characters, almost entirely women, many out of their minds, or at least pleasantly daffy. It makes for a loud stew of performances, no one crowding out the other.
As in many Almodóvar films, there is a fine line in Volver between melodrama and naturalism, with most scenes played at an intensely comic pitch, yet never fully collapsing into absurdity or farce. Somewhere in that tightly-wound space between the real and the surreal, populated with all these generations of strong and idiosyncratic women, lies that mad spark which is Almodóvar's alone, only improving with each passing film.
Reviewed as part of the 2006 New York Film Festival.
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