Pedro Almodovar’s Volver (literally translated, “to return”) is a deceptive film — not just in its numerous shifts of tone and casual dramatic sleights of hand, but also in its lightness of tone. When placed against Almodovar’s more recent works — All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004) — Volver seems a relatively slight work. Even though it’s in typical Almodovar form — that’s to say its plot stays within the supercharged soap opera concept — and it contains three more or less justifiable murders, Volver is a comparatively lighthearted work.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s lightweight. On the contrary, it explores themes and emotions as deep as any found in the filmmaker’s best work. It’s simply that the key is slightly different and the comedy a little less dark than usual. In the publicity material for the film, Almodovar reveals this was very deliberate: “It is a movie about the culture of death in my native region, La Mancha. My folks there live it in astonishing simplicity. The way in which the dead are still present in their lives, the richness and humanity of their rites makes it possible for the dead to never really die. Volver shatters all cliches of a dark Spain and shows a Spain that is as real as it is opposed. A white Spain, spontaneous, fun, fearless, fair and with solidarity.”
The “culture of death” of which he speaks is present from the film’s opening scene. An entire town turns out (in the midst of one of the area’s almost nonstop east winds, which we are told is the source of an abnormally high insanity rate) to sweep, clean and generally spruce up the family graves in the local cemetery. As Almodovar indicates, it’s a ritual that shows the living and the dead coexisting in a kind of harmony — not an invariably convenient harmony, but a casually accepted one. Almodovar being Almodovar, it’s hardly surprising that this ritual is presented in a glorious tracking shot done in such a way that it could almost be a very odd musical number in an old movie.
Having established this concept, he then develops a pretty wild narrative to explore the premise and the themes of his overall concept. The story centers on two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz in a revelatory performance) and Sole (Lola Duenas, Talk to Her). They have come from Madrid to their hometown to perform this ritual for their aged aunt (Chus Lampreave, Talk to Her), a perpetually addled woman who remains strangely self-sufficient and constantly refers to the sisters’ late mother as if she were still alive. The truth is that the mother, Irene (Carmen Maura, the quintessential Almodovar actress of early Almodovar returning after an 18-year absence), has returned from the dead (an idea taken in stride by the locals) in order to take care of Tia Paula.
When Tia Paula dies, Irene hides in the trunk of Sole’s car and goes back to Madrid with her. She chooses not to reveal herself to the more practical-minded Raimunda and takes up secret residency with Sole, working as an assistant in her daughter’s unlicensed hairdressing business and being passed off to customers as a Russian immigrant who speaks little to no Spanish. This isn’t the whole story by any means. Raimunda has problems of her own — having come home to find that her layabout husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre, The Night of the Brother), attempted to molest her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, The Seventh Day), whereupon the girl stabbed her stepfather to death. For Raimunda, the only practical answer is to hide the body, which she laboriously does: in the freezer of an empty restaurant she’s looking after until its absent owner finds a buyer. Of course, this is only a temporary arrangement, and well, giving away any more of the convoluted plot of Volver would spoil the fun of discovering the strange paths down which Almodovar takes his tale. Typically, though the paths may be strange, each one dovetails logically into the next and always feels right no matter how fanciful it might seem on the surface.
The beauty — the genius — of Almodovar as a dramatist lies in his uncanny ability to spin the most preposterously soapy tales, balance them with broadly comic strokes, while evidencing love and respect for his characters and even the melodramatic conventions of the genre. Combining this gift with his flamboyant sense of cinema — transforming it all into the most colorful movie-like world imaginable — the results are nothing short of moviegoing nirvana. And that’s exactly what Volver is. Rated R for some sexual content and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke