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Pedro Almodovar:
by Pedro Almodovar

[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]
("To return" or "coming back")

With "Volver" we return to Almodovar-land, a place that usually embraces women with great affection and understanding, a place of laughs, universal social satire and a style that suggests magical realism. This trip to the Spanish auteur's Madrid takes its title from the story's disappearances and returns.

Writer-director Pedro Almodovar ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," "Talk To Her") sets his stage with a prelude scene in which the women of the city are at the cemetary cleaning, scrubbing and polishing the gravestones of their buried loved ones. Such a congregation of women in a common labor suggests scenes of women doing their laundry in the local stream of an Andean village, or in a chorus act of an opera or an MGM musical. You half expect the scrubbers to break out in song! But, no, the purpose is to introduce our key players and the theme of death. Among the cleaners we find Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas) better known as Sole, and teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo).

The writer-director isn't so much trying to convince us that such a graveyard tableau bears any relationship to reality, though it might have a basis in cultural custom. Rather, he's mixing the seriousness of mortality into a laugh at mankind's oftimes contradictory ways of dealing with it. This is a place where survivors wail at wakes and wonder at the continuing presence of their lost ones over tea and tears. It's a place in which a ghost is a perfectly possible companion... or intruder, and superstitions are foibles to laugh about even as they're held dear. Such contradictions are the grains of Almodovar's creative soil.

After the graveyard cleansing, Raimunda's husband loses his job, gets drunk, and starts eyeing daughter Paula in her sexy getup. Later, feeling free to assault her because they're alone and he's not her biological father anyway, he attempts a rape that ends in Paula stabbing him to death with a kitchen knife. Raimunda returns home to discover the calamity and to efficiently deal with it by concealing the body. Several problems solved--a ne'er do well male put away at an early age.

Raimunda and Paula pay a visit to Aunt Paula back in the pueblo where the family was raised. They marvel at the elderly woman's fine pastries, her exercise bicyle, and at her ability to care for herself -- all inconsistent with her age and physical impairments. Indeed, she shortly thereafter dies, and the plot thickens when at her wake, Raimunda and Sole hear from the grieving chorus of neighbor women that mother Irene has returned from the dead and has been caring for the now deceased Aunt.

Sole is the first to have the concept confirmed when Irene, her long gone mother, appears in her home needing a place to stay. And she brought all of Aunt Paula's valuables with her--so as to prevent the mourners from plundering them. But the real reason for her return, ghost or not, is to apologize for events of the past, and reach an understanding with Raimunda.

Irene's ghostliness and Raimunda's skepticism about the supernatural don't alter the need to cope with the consequences that all these deaths have set into motion and the general level of misbehavior that follows is the source of much farcical humor amidst the serious matters of survival. The cast adopts Almodovar's unique style, fully complicit in devising a rich blend of seriousness and mirth.

Cruz has never fulfilled a role more nor looked so stunning. I've never seen her reveal so much of her bountiful endowments which Almodovar capitalizes on by acknowledging them in the dialogue. It's as though the actress, at this point in her maturity, has decided her talents are adequately accepted on merit and that she need not fear being recognized for her sexuality alone.

Her Raimunda is filled with the confidence and control of the fully mature actor in a complex role developed for (and with) her (according to Almodovar himself in an audience Q & A). In screen command, she exhibits richness of soul and understanding, reminding us of Sophia Loren, that queen of Italian cinema who elevated matriarchy into indelibly iconic memories. This is Cruz' moment to shine, and she makes it sparkle with a tone-perfect performance. In the rare moment that she's not onscreen, you pine for her presence. The role is hers and she is the role.

There's nothing slack either about her sense of comedy and timing but, in this area, she's paralleled by the easily underestimated Lola Duenas ("The Sea Inside") who imparts a radiant modesty into a comedic range that perfectly adapts to the circumstances. In the best sense of the term, her gifts are those of the clown: sadness, self-deprecation, pessimism and tactile relief when problems don't turn out as badly as it seemed they would.

In the list of things I appreciated about the movie, there is also the positive nature of the relationships, which convey family ties and support in good measure. Not least is the mother-daughter tie expressed by Cruz and young Cobo.

Certainly among Almodovar's talents is his gift for casting. And, even while the unfamiliarity of actors seldom seen outside Spanish cinema requires some adjustment, and a world in which male characters are so completely sidelined, he gets you there. Such is the case of Blanca Portillo in a significant role of family friend, fellow conspirator and cancer patient--which brings us back into the question of death from a yet different perspective.

The video/audio version of this review
The cinematography, by Jose Luis Alcaine, isn't one of the film's strong points, lavishing itself in the primary colors of a candy box, although his artistry occasionally brings full justice to Cruz' beauty. This is also heightened by Massimo Gattabrusi's fullsome hairstyling. The score, by Alberto Iglesias, is serviceable, taking mostly a backseat until segue moments require eerie chording to point our mood swings in the right direction.

In the end, the feast is in the thematic contrasts, richly seasoned with humor and layered with seriousness by a masterchef of the artful conception. Volvere'. I will return... to Almodovar's table... for his next serving of satirical fancy.

Click for full list of movie 

                                                       ~~  Jules Brenner


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Penelope Cruz:
Matriarchal woman, determined, stressed, resourceful.
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