The striking aspect in Pedro Almodovar’s films is how completely he develops the universe of his films, without even really calling attention to it. This is my sixth film from the Spanish master- following “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (now a must rewatch), “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!” (ditto), “Live Flesh,” “Talk to Her,” and “Bad Education”- and how I’m just now noticing this is beyond me, but that’s how good of a cinematic magician Almodovar is. And in watching “Volver,” Almodovar’s latest and best that I’ve seen of his, something just clicked about it. His movies just work, regardless of how surreal the situation seems to get.
Case in point, “Volver” (which means “return”) takes place in La Mancha, a village not far outside of Madrid where some residents believe the dead can come back to talk to the living, and finish any business they left undone in life. With this idea established, Almodovar takes us into the lives of two sisters, Sole (Lola Duenas) and Raimunda (Oscar nominee and Almodovar veteran Penelope Cruz, warm and winning- and oh so voluptuous- in a performance that makes you regret how poorly she was cast in Hollywood), whose parents died four years ago. But their aging and ailing aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) claims their mother has been taking care of her in the time leading to her passing, back from the dead. No one doubts the claim- as previously mentioned, such things are accepted in the village, and the evidence in their aunt’s house is overwhelming- and Sole gets her own “visitation” by mother Irene (Carmen Maura, in a performance that leaves an indelible mark on the viewer), whom she passes off as a Russian houseguest, taken in and helping her out in her apartment-based beauty salon.
As Sole and Irene bond again, Raimunda is having to figure out ways to be a mother to her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) after her drunk, lazy husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) tries to rape Paula, who stabs and kills him. Covering up the murder- which has some loose ends, but emotionally feels true- proves tricky when Raimunda hides the body in a freezer in a restaurant, which she soon opens up for business when a film crew is in town looking for a caterer. Add to the mix a family friend Augustina (Blanca Portillo) who’s dying of cancer, and you have the basic recipe for a story that is 100% Almodovar. To say more would be to deprive a master filmmaker of dazzling us with his uncanny ability to surprise us, while making such revelations a natural part of his work. This isn’t the work of an egotist who makes his surprises out to be more than the story itself (I’m looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan) but of an artist who’s following the story where it takes him, and doesn’t think anything of taking leaps in reality so long as the emotional core of the story isn’t compromised. That acceptance of unreality as a central component of life is at the heart of Almodovar’s work, and “Volver”- propelled to the upper ranks of not just 2006’s best films but Almodovar’s by a peerless cast of actresses (who shared an acting prize at Cannes) and an evocative and beautiful score by Alberto Iglesias- is a film that comes straight from the heart of its’ maker.