At 57, Pedro Almodóvar is the only contemporary European director to have a large, devoted American audience awaiting each new film in the way that the art-house and college cinema patrons of the 1950s through the 1970s once clamored for the latest Fellini or Truffaut or Bergman.
He gained it by representing something new. Almodóvar signaled the artistic and political reawakening of Spain, a nation that had missed out on so much of post-World War II European cinema because it was mired in Generalissimo Francisco Franco's repressive government. (Franco died in 1975.)
As a Boomer influenced by the sexual, feminist and gay liberation movements of his time, Almodóvar had much to offer a free Spain and its emerging cinema. All his U.S.-released features of the last 20-plus years have featured idiosyncratic characters, unconventional plot twists and a provocative edge -- sometimes delicate, sometimes malicious -- both in tone and subject matter. In short, he is a true auteur.
And yet it seemed his previous film, 2004's Bad Education with Gael Garcia Bernal as a drag queen with a complicated past, got lost in too much edge. Almodóvar was trying too hard to be a provocateur and came up with a movie of muted emotional impact.
It's with great pleasure to report that in Volver he's taken a step or two back in complexity and come up with one of his most satisfying and generous films. It's funny and touching, accessible yet also quietly perverse.
It also marks an acting triumph for Madrid-born Penélope Cruz, long on the verge of a breakthrough but too often chained to contrived American movies in which she was an awkward if attractive English-speaking presence.
Here, she radiates the kind of dark-haired, deep-cleavage earthy voluptuousness that Sophia Loren once had. But she's not a living prop, either. As the beautifully named Raimunda, she's passionately alive -- brainy, funny, excitable, sexy, vulnerable ... emotional!
She and Almodóvar, paired in 1999's Mother, here have the kind of legendary chemistry of a Dietrich and von Sternberg.
And yet, while she's Volver's center, she's hardly the film's sole asset. Carmen Maura, who starred in Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988, has a sly turn -- mysterious and strangely childlike -- as Raimunda's dead mother Irene, who appears to have returned to earth as a ghost after her death. (In English, "volver" translates as "to return.")
Lola Duenas, who had a secondary role in Almodóvar's Talk to Her, is a striking addition to Volver as Irene's other daughter Sole. She has a light, comic touch that allows her round face to beam with delight and joy. This makes pleasurable her character's ongoing banter with her mother and sister.
As ever, Almodóvar's film is packed with quirky and sometimes melodramatic story developments -- Volver's one weakness is that it gets a bit talky toward the end as the characters have to explain everything to each other -- and us. Raimunda and Sole's parents died in a fire years ago in their home village, where an aging aunt remains. The sisters have moved to Madrid.
When the aunt dies and Sole comes to the funeral, the ghost of Irene cheerfully slips into the rear of her car for a ride back, explaining she needs a place to stay with Sole's aunt gone. A confused but compliant Sole agrees, soon setting her mother up as a helper in the hair salon she runs out of her apartment.
Irene, however, stays hidden from Raimunda. That's just as well because she has her own problems. Her early teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) has just knifed to death her scummy stepfather Paco (Antonio de la Torre), who tried to molest her in the kitchen.
Raimunda has remarkably little nostalgia for Paco; she just wants to get rid of the body as conveniently as possible and protect Paula. And the inconvenient killing interferes with attending her aunt's funeral.
One doesn't think of Almodóvar as a violent director -- no one will ever call him Spain's Mel Gibson, thank God! -- but the scenes of the cleanup of Paco's body are among the film's best. The close-ups of the red blood soaking through the fiber of a paper towel are a study in art composition, as fascinating as a Rothko colorfield painting. The macabre tension is worthy of Hitchcock or Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and, of course, Cruz is wildly sexy.
The sequence also is funny. When Raimunda must greet an unexpected visitor who notices smeared blood on her neck, she laughs it off as "women's problems."
No one else in cinema today can mix all this together so blithely or memorably without going over the top or veering into tastelessness. It's Almodóvar with all cylinders fired up, and yet it's but one small part of Volver. Raimunda also goes on to launch a restaurant business, all the while hiding Paco's body in a locked freezer as a sort of good-luck charm.
Volver also has a more classically soulful and tragic figure, an aging acquaintance of the sisters from the village (Blanca Portillo) who has been left behind by time to tend to the old and the graves of the dead. She develops cancer, a subject Almodóvar treats seriously and matter-of-factly. The final resolution of her fate is poetically shot and staged, but more it's elegiac in the way it metaphorically instills grace on a Spain haunted by its own past.
All those auteurist European filmmakers of an older generation would be proud. Grade: A