By Joe Lozito
Spain and Pleasure
It's appropriate that the title of Pedro Almodóvar's film "Volver" translates as "to come back" since it signals a return to the kind of whimsical Spanish soap operas that the famously female-centric director does best. All the Almodóvar trademarks are here: mother-daughter issues, unworthy men and, of course, an almost entirely female cast. Having apparently exercised the demons that brought about his meditative noir, "Bad Education", Mr. Almodóvar's mood has lightened considerably. From the wonderful opening tracking shot of a cemetery full of women madly scrubbing tombstones in a windstorm, it's clear that we're in classic Almodóvar country. The director positively transports us into his unique vision of a Spain filled with bright colors, no-nonsense women and family melodrama.
I don't want to give away too much about the plot of "Volver", since half the fun is watching it unfold, but here's a taste: to visit their ailing Aunt Paula, two sisters, Raimunda and Sole, now living in Madrid, return to the small pueblo where they grew up and where their parents died in a tragic fire. There they meet up with childhood friend Agustina whose own mother disappeared mysteriously years ago. The bond between the women is palpable and the way they greet each other with multiple cheek-kisses is beyond endearing. Also along for the ride is Raimunda's young daughter (the charming Yohana Cobo), whose obsession with her cell phone will be instantly recognizable across any language barrier.
Once again, Mr. Almodóvar's love of all things female has led him to put together a flawless cast. Lola Dueñas (from "The Sea Inside") is wonderful as the timid Sole, and Blanca Portillo is quietly memorable as Agustina. But this movie belongs to Raimunda and, in the role, Penélope Cruz has never been better. Happily freed of those crucial Hollywood missteps ("Vanilla Sky"
, Tom Cruise), Ms. Cruz is able to let loose like we've never seen before. She's positively radiant as Raimunda and she takes control of the screen and the role. When, back in Madrid, Raimunda's good-for-nothing husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) loses his job, setting in motion a tragic chain of events, watch as Mr. Cruz's character springs into action.
It's important to note that I've only covered about the first fifteen minutes or so of "Volver". There is so much to the film that I'm leaving to Mr. Almodóvar to tell. While it never reaches the emotional heights - or depths - of his 1999 masterpiece "All About My Mother"
, "Volver" is by turns moving and deeply joyous. It's a celebration of overcoming the drama that can tear apart a family. And, like so much else, the joy is not in the telling of the story but in the journey itself.