COMING BACK: Raimunda returns to herself; so does Almodóvar.
Volver may be a rich and moving film that celebrates the triumph of the feminine spirit, but it’s already best known as the movie in which writer/director Pedro Almodóvar fitted willowy leading lady Penélope Cruz with an ample prosthetic ass. But, hey, he got his money’s worth. You get to see it often, since Cruz’s character spends a lot of time walking away — from her roots, her commitments, her family, and her feelings.
Cruz’s Raimunda is a young mother with a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) and a layabout husband. They live in a tenement in Madrid, though Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) come from a village in La Mancha, where their parents died four years ago in a mysterious fire. Several locals, however, claim to have seen the ghost of the sisters’ mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). At a family funeral, Sole spots her too, and when she gets back to Madrid, she finds Irene has stowed away in the trunk of her car.
Raimunda is a cleaning woman, and Volver gives her plenty of messes to work on. One particularly horrible one results involves a bloody corpse in her kitchen, a situation she handles with surprising aplomb. Another involves the all-but-abandoned restaurant next door, which she turns into a thriving business. A third involves long-unresolved issues between her and Irene — could that be why Irene has reappeared and come to Madrid?
Volver translates to “overturn” or “come back.” The latter describes more than just Irene’s reappearance — it’s also what Almodóvar is doing, coming back after the bleak Mala educación|Bad Education to the melodramatic plots and twisted comedy that marked his early films, particularly ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!|What Have I Done To Deserve This? and Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios|Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. (It’s a treat to see Women on the Verge’s sly star Maura in front of Almodóvar’s camera again.) The cosmopolitan filmmaker is also returning to his own small-town roots, reinventing his birthplace as a village out of folklore (or out of Cervantes), a place governed by wind and madness (where Don Quixote’s windmills have been replaced by fields of turbines), a place where widows lovingly tend to every plot in the cemetery, including their own future resting places. The film’s sense that the dead and the living are never far apart isn’t morbid, but it adds a rueful, more mature air to Almodóvar’s once-madcap style.
What hasn’t changed over the years is Almodóvar’s appreciation of women. All the actresses are terrific in Volver, but the director lavishes special attention on Cruz, caressing every (real and fake) curve of her body with his camera and giving her her juiciest role to date. He wants us to think of Raimunda as a flawed but triumphant earth-mother type patterned after Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren, as in the wonderful sequence in which Raimunda barters with her female neighbors to get the food she needs to get the restaurant up and running, a scene that quickly establishes the sense of a cooperative community of women. The women blossom as the film progresses (and as the movie’s palette turns voluptuously colorful), none more so than Raimunda, who at one point even breaks into song. It’s a sad, mysterious flamenco lament she learned in childhood, but at that moment it’s clear that she’s finally coming back to herself.