Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas) are two sisters barely over the shock of losing their parents in a house fire. Raimunda is a mother increasingly dissatisfied with her life and spouse. When her husband leaves the scene, Raimunda is free to take herself in new directions, finding motivation watching over a friend's restaurant while he's away. Sole lives a more lonely life, and when the sisters' dead mother (Blanca Portillo) reappears to offer guidance and apologies, it pushes Sole to a new spiritual awakening, and Raimunda to a place in her heart where she's kept the darkness locked away for decades.
In Pedro Almodovar's 16th feature film, "Volver" is one of his most self-assured works, nestled into a style and filmmaking breadth that has officially become synonymous with the Almodovar brand.
"Volver" is a melodrama fascinated with the justice of death and the mysteries of life after this mortal coil. It's one of Almodovar's most conventional films to date, continuing on his path towards embracing his graying spirit, and gently forwarding his continuing interest in classically mounted tales of familial anxiety. "Volver" moves in mysterious ways, but it finds its center of gravity in the interworkings of family and the secrets that can create great divides. It's a film about the hope of closure at the very end of a difficult journey.
It has become nearly an annual tradition to herald an Almodovar film for its performances, and "Volver" is no exception. Embodying the varying degrees of Spanish femininity, the picture is awash with finely-honed acting, lead by the charging, raw emotion of Penelope Cruz. Channeling the breathtaking sexual stance of her acting elders Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, Cruz puts up a front of curves and middle-class glamour, but undercuts it with a twitchy read of a character founded in guilt, secrets, and distrust. It's not that Cruz necessarily outacts her co-stars, but her role is the most striking in terms of primal heat and relatable frustration. Cruz matches Almodovar's visual sumptuousness and clipped tonal changes note for note.
"Volver" is strikingly beautiful in visual and performance terms, but the story doesn't always sway to the same beat. Pushing against the grain, "Volver" is a strange film that establishes itself as plot-centric in the first 45 minutes, and then settles down into a slack character study. Usually, it's the other way around. Raimunda's plot thread has all the makings of a deft, suspenseful thriller, which gets the senses firing early, but that jolt is never seen to conclusion. "Volver" calms down after initial scenes of baroque horror and disturbing sexuality; it becomes enriching rather than thrilling, which wounds the pace of the film, but makes up for this absence of movement with character interaction that has depth and thought. It's an interesting trade-off; a creative choice that takes time to fully understand and appreciate.
While "Volver" opens with a blade, it ends with forgiveness and hope for new beginnings. This isn't Almodovar going soft, but embracing the longing for angels and the religion of comfort. After misfiring with the turgid "Bad Education," "Volver" is Almodovar with his eyes wide open again. I don't want him any other way.
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