Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Volver is yet another of Pedro Almodóvar's warm, humanitarian comedies. The Spanish director's preferred subject matter frequently runs to edgy material, often embracing extreme characters -- transsexuals, sexual predators -- but always arrives at a greater understanding of the human condition. With less extreme content than his last two films (Talk to Her, Bad Education), Volver reached a much larger audience. In a movie culture dominated by mediocrity, Almodóvar can be counted on for intelligent and emotionally valid dramas.
Much of Volver's American promotion seemed to center on Penélope Cruz' ample cleavage. Scant attention was paid to the fact that the film marks Almodóvar's professional reunion with the wonderful actress Carmen Maura, who helped the director make his mark in several 1980s pictures including his major breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almodóvar may invent bizarre circumstances for his female protagonists but he has more respect for women than any filmmaker working.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is dealing with a pile of domestic and family issues. Her husband Paco has been fired and is taking an unhealthy interest in his stepdaughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Her sister Soledad (Lola Dueñas) still blames her for family troubles that started when their mother and father died in a fire several years before. Back in their rural town in La Mancha, Raimunda's Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) is obviously too feeble and absent minded to take care of herself, but her household seems to be running smoothly. Aunt Paula's neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo) is almost afraid to mention what the local gossips are rumoring: that Raimunda's dead mother Irene has returned as a ghost, to care for her sister.
Pedro Almodóvar's best films maintain several tones simultaneously. A hint of broad farce (Women on the Verge ... is still present, along with a taste of horror-film outrageousness (Matador). Sex themes (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) are certainly there, but are sublimated into the overall experience of his female protagonists. Volver is the strongest expression yet of the general sisterhood of women. In Almodóvar's world men never seem to hang around very long; when they do they become sexually irresponsible. Like lionesses in a pride, the mature females need to protect their young from their own fathers. Older women are mostly left with each other. Many have lost their husbands and some never had them, and nobody is going to sympathize with an older woman except other women.
In earlier Almodóvar pictures the men were often absent, running off with other women or confused in their own gender issues. Drug use and insanity bring down the men as well. When an Almodóvar character self-reinvents, it's usually a woman. In Volver Cruz's Raimunda simply hasn't the energy left to indulge her husband. As he only wants beer, soccer and sex, he's a major liability. Even the nice men tend to be clueless. Caught with blood on her throat by a neighbor, Raimunda simply says that it's 'female business.' The man promptly drops the subject!
Raimunda is Almodóvar's idea of the essentially wondrous woman. She works like an ox and still finds energy to devote to her elderly relatives and her precious daughter Paula. The romantic overtures of the restaurant owner next door are a nuisance that Raimunda handles with polite dignity. A handsome young assistant director tries to 'talk personal' to Raimunda and she just sends him away; the time is not right for a boyfriend. In the middle of five personal disasters, Raimunda has the stamina to weather them all. I haven't seen a film that celebrates female strength as does Volver; Almodóvar worships his women as magical creatures.
Volver combines a murder tale with a ghost story, leaving room for a juicy adulterous Curse from the Past. The film's rather generous attitude to the covering-up of a killing is typical of Almodóvar's penchant for transgression, as most of his films stretch the acceptability of at least one taboo. If you come to Volver expecting a detective to show up in the last scene with an arrest warrant, you just haven't been paying attention. Nothing in Volver is technically supernatural, but superstition is a big part of the equation. When the women steal each other's men or exploit one another, as does the vicious television host, they become demonic harpies. When they follow the communal urge to do what's right and take care of each other, they indeed take on a spiritual dimension.
Pedro Almodóvar writes his own screenplays and has had no problem coming up with an endless stream of interesting, character-driven stories. We can tell that he's had the basic plot of Volver in mind for at least twelve years, because it appears in his The Flower of My Secret. In that film, Marisa Paredes' disillusioned romance novelist proposes a story about a woman who murders her husband after discovering that he's raped their daughter. She hides the body in the freezer of a restaurant next door! Naturally, Paredes' publishers reject the story as offensively dark and brutal.
Volver ends up firmly in emotional territory, with several mother-and-child reunions and the reaffirmation of the need for strong mother-daughter bonds. Raimunda's mom failed to protect her as a child, which led to years of resentful separation. Raimunda is thankfully able to keep the same tragedy from befalling young Paula.
By now Almodóvar has the ability to make his actresses emotionally transparent, from the sweet and polite Yohana Cobo to the delightfully endearing Carmen Maura. The continuity shift between Maura here and her body-proud younger character in Women on the Verge... gives us a perspective on the way women develop through life -- if they're happy, they remain beautiful. We've been watching Chus Lampreave grow ever-older for at least twenty years of Almodóvar pictures so she's also earned a permanent place in our hearts.
Lola Dueñas has one of those interesting faces that someone like Federico Fellini would pigeonhole as a 'type' for his circus sideshow method of casting. Almodóvar doesn't do that, as he demonstrated with his adoration for Rossy de Palma, a model and actress with a very unusual face. To Almodóvar everything in life is strange, including the people. He celebrates beauty even when it refuses to conform to commercial standards.
Ms. Cruz is certainly at the top of her game. Almodóvar reserves for her an honor that's disappeared from films, the opportunity to sing on camera. The Argentine ballad Volver is an emotional standard with beautiful lyrics, and Cruz delivers it not to a specific romantic object, but to desired returns and reunions.
Sony's DVD of Volver presents this glowing picture, Savant's favorite of 2006, in an enhanced transfer with bright colors. Alberto Iglesias' score and the emotional title tune sound great in DD 5.1 audio. Director Almodóvar provides a full commentary and also contributes to an interview section with Ms.' Cruz and Maura. Penélope Cruz is also present for a longer interview taped at a film festival, talking about her childhood. Her parents sent her to dancing lessons because she had too much excess energy. Being in a Pedro Almodóvar movie was apparently an early goal.
The disc's only drawback is that Sony makes us watch three trailers upon load-up. The only way to get past them is to hit the chapter or menu button three times.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary with director Pedro Almodóvar & Penélope Cruz; interviews with Almodóvar, Cruz, Carmen Maura
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 15, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson