Pedro Almodovar’s Volver (“Return”) is amazingly bright, fresh and clean for a film dealing with murder, adultery, incest, malignant disease and the occasional supernatural apparition. It is a testament to Almodovar’s vision that in a film in which half the characters are dead or dying, there should be this much life and vigor.
The action takes place in La Mancha. Harkening back to Don Quixote and his windmills, La Mancha is festooned with massive, modern cyclone machines that capture the unabating wind and convert it into power for the small villages nearby. It is a apt metaphor for a ghost story, the root words for “spirit” and “wind” being nearly identical.
Penelope Cruz stars as Raimunda, a neglected housewife who shares a horrible secret with her adolescent daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo) who has killed her father after he tried to rape her. Raimunda’s sister, Sole (Lola Duenas) also has a secret: their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) has returned from the dead and taken up residence with her in her tiny apartment. Irene, who can be seen by everyone, is passed off as a visiting Russian who has to run and hide under the bed every time Raimunda drops by unexpectedly for a visit. The plot thickens when best friend Augustina (Blanca Portillo) announces she has cancer and goes on one last quest to discover what happened to her mother, who mysteriously vanished the same day Raimunda and Sole’s mother died.
If the plot seems convoluted, it makes perfect sense on the screen. And no matter, as plot is secondary to character in this radiant Spanish export.
Volver is a film that rejoices—opulently and ferociously—in the power and vitality of womanhood. Volver’s predominantly female cast is nothing short of magical. Maura is warmth personified, Duenas a gentle comic genius, and Portillo the sad, lost shell of a former beauty we are never allowed to see.
However, as good as they are, this is Cruz’ film and she plays every scene with a luminescent intensity that easily explains her Oscar nomination. She is nothing short of radiant, exuding the sort of raw, Latin sensuality not seen since Sophia Loren. Almodovar, who is gay and often fills his films with transsexual characters, is not afraid of sexualizing his actress in a manner usually reserved for more misogynistic directors. The camera lovingly hovers over Cruz’ breasts which spill out of her tight blouses throughout the film. As a friend said to me as we left the theater, “It’s not that Almodovar is sexually attracted to them. It’s more of a fascination thing, like, I sure wish I had some of those.”
Why has the ghost of Irene returned? And is she even a ghost at all?
Ultimately, though estranged in both life and death, we know mother and daughter must eventually come together. And when they do, it sets up one of the oddest endings to any film I’ve ever seen. Not that what happens is particularly weird—it’s not. But even as the film ends on a happy, high note, the visual and musical atmosphere is such that it feels like a melancholy sad denouement.