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Following the death of their beloved aunt, sisters Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) begin hearing rumors of sightings of their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), which is certainly odd, because Irene and her husband died in a tragic house fire several years earlier. Upon returning from the funeral, Sole finds Irene hiding in the trunk of her car; she takes her mother in, telling her neighbors that Irene is a Russian immigrant. Although Sole encourages her mother to tell Raimunda she has returned, Irene refuses, which is just as well, as Raimunda has enough to deal with already, particularly the body of her dead husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), who was killed by Raimunda's daughter, Paula (Yohana Coba), after he attempted to sexually abuse her.
The above summary makes Volver (the title is from the Spanish for "to return") sound like nothing more than a silly soap opera, yet the film is anything but. While I'm sure such a plot would have devolved into silly melodrama in the hands of almost any other director, this latest work from Pedro Almodóvar manages to be funny, moving, tragic, and insightful, quite often all at the same time. This isn't the director's best work (although it's close), but it is another step in the maturation of his work, exhibiting a further synthesizing of the elements that have so far dominated his output.
It's something of a cliché to mention that no director understands or cares for his female characters the way Almodóvar does, but I think it bears repeating. Each woman here is fully realized, and each acts in a completely believable, human manner. The story's central conceit requires a leap of faith on the part of the audience (just as it does for the characters themselves), but in the end it certainly seems reasonable (Almodóvar wisely establishes specifics as to how and why these events could unfold in the modern world); besides, in a way the plot here is largely a means to an end, and I'd say that end certainly justifies the means. And had this film been financed by an American studio, Raimunda would have undoubtedly been rescued (and I mean that as pejoratively as is possible) by one of the two men who are so obviously attracted to her, the darker elements of the story would have been erased, and everything would have been wrapped up in a nice little package and sealed with a cute little bow; thankfully, Almodóvar, while giving us an emotionally satisfying wrap-up, leaves us with the sense that life isn't going to be a cakewalk for his characters once the credits roll.
As I alluded to earlier, no one handles shifts in tone quite like Almodóvar. Volver moves between comedy, tragedy, and drama in the blink of an eye, but it always does so smoothly. For example, there's a scene early in the film during which Raimunda's husband attempts to initiate sex. When his attempts prove fruitless, he begins to masturbate furiously, an extremely uncomfortable Raimunda lying in bed next to him. The scene is hilarious, but the scene preceding it, during which Paco watches his young daughter changing clothes and becomes aroused, is sickening in its implications. Successfully juxtaposing moments such as this is a marvelous feat.
The comedic elements here aren't as outrageous as they've been in the director's previous films, but the movie is still very funny. The scene in which Raimunda and Sole repeatedly decline a friend's offer to smoke a joint is one of the funniest (not to mention knowing) bits I've seen in a very long time. And the long sequence in which Raimunda and her unwitting accomplices dispose of the freezer is hilarious, primarily because it's written and played so naturally; it could easily have become a Lucy and Ethel type escapade, but Almodóvar wisely plays it in a fairly straightforward manner.
The acting here is exemplary. While it was Cruz (who, despite being glammed down, has never been lovelier) who was receiving accolades during awards season, the rest of the cast is just as impressive (and it's nice to see Almodóvar is still creating roles for Maura after all these years). Although the director deserves a great deal of credit for the movie's success, it's easy to see that the film would have collapsed had the cast not been able to convey a sense of familiarity; the actors here seem less an ensemble and more a family unit, which really helps move the film out of the norm.
As is often the case with an Almodóvar film, the color scheme here is bright, bold, highly saturated, and even a little garish at times. The 2.35:1 transfer does a very good job of capturing this look. The myriad of primary colors that fill the screen really pop, the black levels are strong, and depth and detail, while not particularly distinguished, are adequate. The only flaw is a bit of flatness (and a resulting loss of depth) in a couple of dimly-lit scenes.
Audio is available in Spanish Dolby Digital and uncompressed PCM 5.1 tracks (no dubbed track is included, and I for one am thankful). As you might expect from a film driven by dialogue, the sound design is front-heavy. Fortunately, dialogue always comes through clearly, and the music (both the score and the handful of songs sprinkled about) sounds very good. The differences between the tracks aren't monumental, but the PCM does sound smoother and more natural. As far as subtitles go, English is the only option.
Kicking things extras-wise off is a commentary with Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Presented in Spanish with English subtitles, this is a good discussion of the film's origins and themes, although at times the director and his star appear to be at a weekly meeting of their mutual admiration society.
Interviews with Almodóvar, Cruz, and Maura (23 minutes total) are also included. These are hampered by the interviewer's penchant for asking her subjects the same inane questions. The director's segment is both the lengthiest and most informative.
An AFI interview with Cruz (17 minutes) is also available. Unless you're interested in hearing anecdotes about the actress's childhood, there's not much to this.
The Making of Volver (8 minutes) is a rather nonsensical behind-the-scenes featurette. Footage from the set is strung together in a freeform manner, seemingly with no regard for context.
Closing things out is a photo/poster gallery.
If you're already an Almodóvar devotee, you shouldn't think twice about purchasing this disc. If you're unfamiliar with the director's works, this isn't a bad place to start. Volver is, simply put, a beautiful film.