Volver (2006)

It would be easy for critics and audiences alike to quietly begrudge the international success that has met Pedro Almodóvar since he burst onto the global film scene in 1988 with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. From the Côte d’Azur to the hills of Hollywood, critics and fans have fawned over his every movie with such undiminished enthusiasm and praise that a popular backlash would seem almost inevitable. For those secretly plotting the arthouse revolt against such a beloved master their wait, thankfully, will continue. For Volver, Almodóvar’s latest film newly released on DVD, continues in his tradition of original vision and cinematic brilliance.

In Volver Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, the calming center at the heart of an eccentric family of women. The film opens in the Spanish countryside of La Mancha with Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) furiously scrubbing the gravestones of their parents as the wild eastern winds whip about. Daughters, wives, and widows – all of the village women can be seen here in their weekly ceremony of loving, protecting, and remembering deceased family members.

The fabled eastern winds of Spain stir more than just debris in La Mancha, and the village is rife with well-worn superstitions and tales of ghosts. Nary a doubt is raised by the village women when Raimunda’s beloved Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) claims to have seen and spoken with her late sister, Irene (Carmen Maura). To these women it seems only natural that Irene would return to care for her frail and elderly sister. Raimunda and Sole are a bit more incredulous but treat their aunt’s tales with good humor.

Back in Madrid the sisters’ lives are no less influenced by the maternal powers that dominate life in La Mancha. Raimunda is balancing the chaos of several jobs, the irritation of her lazy and newly unemployed husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and the thankless task of being mother to her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Any sense of equilibrium is lost, however, when returning home from work one evening Raimunda discovers that Paula has stabbed Paco to death in an act of self-defense after Paco’s forceful sexual advances are rebuffed.

Raimunda quickly informs her daughter that Paco was not her biological father. Insisting that she take the blame, rather than her daughter, should the murder ever be discovered, Raimunda sets about to make sure Paco’s disappearance is never questioned. The unlikely mix of death’s sensuality, humor, and horror is expertly blended in these well-paced scenes and Almodóvar manages to retain his hopeful tone without ignoring the gravity of the situation.

Meanwhile, after the death of Aunt Paula, Sole is paid a visit by the ghost of her mother, Irene. Sole soon has her phantom mother — posing as a Russian émigré so as not to be recognized by those who knew her in her earthly life — employed in her illegal hair salon that she runs out of her Madrid apartment. Irene, reluctant to reveal herself to Raimunda, scurries under a guest bed each time her daughter pays a visit. It would seem that Irene’s stay is linked to unfinished business with her daughter, Raimunda and with Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a long-suffering neighbor whose family secrets intersect with her own.

Mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, ghosts and murder, betrayal and atonement, life and death, loss and redemption – there are so many interlocking and fluid themes within Volver that any attempt at relating its narrative inevitably comes up short. Almodóvar’s luxurious dips into the whimsy of the supernatural and the gentle, stylish glamour he lends to surrealism never detract from the overall humanity and love that suffuses his film.

In Volver, Almodóvar once again creates a world where the resilient power and soulful primacy of women is on full, glorious display. Forever on the periphery, men not only assume a secondary role in the plot, but also quietly represent a dark and abusive force that haunts and forever taints the vibrant color of life. In Almodóvar’s world, women are the unmistakable, undeniable and indelible colors of life — they are the red splashed across the harsh grey landscape.

It could be argued that as a director Almodóvar is unmatched in his affection and generosity toward women. So inexhaustible is his wonder, love, and respect for the female characters he creates that the actresses who inhabit his dream world always manage to shine with distinction. The cast in Volver is no exception and the virtuoso performances by the lead actresses are remarkable. From the subtle, devastating power of Dueñas (as Sole) to the effortless humor and grace of (as Irene) the casting of Volver is flawless.

But perhaps the most surprising performance of all is the one delivered by Cruz. Right or wrong, in the American press, Cruz will always be compared to the exotic sensuality of the quintessential and inimitable European screen goddess Sophia Loren. With her potent mix of earthy sexuality and Mediterranean beauty Cruz’s talent as an actor has gone mostly unnoticed. Hollywood’s determined interest in making her a star resulted in bland film roles where her physical attractiveness was lazily substituted for character and substance.

Luckily, with Volver, Cruz finally rises above all the hype and delivers her finest performance to date. As the overworked mother, sister, wife, and daughter of an eccentric Madrid family Cruz plays Raimunda with a gentle humor, a quiet sadness, and a determined strength. Her performance is revelatory and one can only hope that future filmmakers are able to extract from the artifice of her beauty the kind of talent and truth that Almodóvar has.

The DVD release of Volver allows fans of the filmmaker to further immerse themselves in the dazzling, brilliant world of a cinematic legend. While the extras are fairly standard, viewers will no doubt appreciate the cast and filmmaker commentaries and interviews that complement the main picture. Additional disc extras include an AFI tribute to Cruz and a brief behind-the-scenes feature on the making of the film.

As with most of Almodóvar’s films, Volver is a paean to all that is overtly and intrinsically female. From the powerful kinship of sisterhood to the unbreakable connections of motherhood this film is a celebration of life lived in spite of, in deference to, and in full acknowledgment of all the inherent complexities of being alive. Almodóvar’s world may be unlike any you are familiar with, but it is a world filled with such wonder and such love that you will no doubt wish his fantasies were real.

RATING 8 / 10