George Cukor may be the prototypical “women’s director” of Hollywood’s classic period, but nobody can write witty, sympathetic roles for modern women like Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar. And where Cukor had a rousing multi-picture partnership with Katherine Hepburn, Almodovar again teams with one of his favorite heroines, Penélope Cruz, in the genre-busting new film “Volver.”
Cruz is currently riding a deserved wave of admiration for her unwavering performance as the plucky Raimunda, a woman who braves major life catastrophes as though they were minor bumps in the road. It seems that she barely has time to catch her breath before another calamity falls her way, yet Almodovar never lets “Volver” devolve into exaggeration. It is a tribute to his unique talent that a movie featuring murder, incest, and ghosts also has a lighthearted, campy side that doesn’t seem at all out of place.
Raimunda is not the only resilient female in the movie. At the Cannes film festival last year, the entire female ensemble cast was awarded the Best Actress prize. No matter how strange or dire their circumstances get, the women of “Volver” persevere. After her husband’s unexpected murder and the death of a beloved aunt, it seems that Raimunda’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura) has returned from the dead. This becomes clear to both her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), but Raimunda is left in the dark.
This is figuratively, of course, because even though he is dealing with a ghost story, Almodovar cannot be bothered with the trappings of that genre. There is a complete absence of shadows and smoke, and most of the movie takes place in the brightly-hued light of day. The director’s affinity for placing primary colors in authentic locations remains intact, providing a cheery undertone to “Volver” (roughly translated as “To Return”) even in its darkest moments.
In addition, Irene does not exhibit any sort of ghostly manner. She is corporeal, and has to smuggle herself in the trunk of Sole’s car to get from her La Mancha village to Madrid to face Raimunda and resolve some old family issues. Once she arrives, and her presence is acknowledged, a practical question arises.
“How long will you be staying?” Sole asks (in Spanish with English subtitles).
Maura is both funny and moving as a woman who has been given an unlikely second chance to make amends for the mistakes of her past—when she is good and ready to confront them. Irene is not above hiding underneath the bed or in the closet to avoid detection by Raimunda. This sort of subtle humor is effortless for Almodovar, and comes right out of his affection for the women. After her long trip in her youngest daughter’s car, the disheveled ghost even demands a haircut and dye job!
Men are the most minor of characters in “Volver.” They are either lecherous fools (in the case of Raimunda’s husband Paco) or a pretty distraction (like the film crew assistant who flirts with her to no avail). A quick glimpse of a happy photo of Paco and Raimunda right after their marriage makes me wonder if all of Almodovar’s men start out as idealized figures, but are doomed to eventually reveal their true predatory nature.
Even though there is a murder, that is a minor part of the story. Almodovar deftly avoids thriller cliches as well. There is no threat of investigation or being found out. The killing is simply another roadblock to Raimunda getting her life back to normal. Once she sorts out these pesky problems, she can go back to working two jobs and raising her daughter.
Although the premise has a certain fantasy element to it and the film has that light comic touch that Almodovar is known for, “Volver” is grounded in the real. The movie narrowly avoids a soapy tone, steered steadily by great performances and a solid dramatic narrative. Buried family secrets surface and revelations are plenty. At its core, Almodovar’s latest is an emotionally rich film about forgiveness, atonement, and second chances that either sex can relate to.