If any other film promoted itself as a mix of “Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace combined with surrealistic naturalism” you would assume someone had made a mistake. However, for Pedro Almodovar this is just his usual stock in trade.
After all his last two films have featured Gael Garcia Bernal as a beautiful transvestite blackmailing a priest in Bad Education (2003) and a female bullfighter in a coma in 2001’s Talk to Her. With any new film it’s impossible to predict which strange places he’ll go to next.
Despite this unpredictability, there are some common themes that run through his work, many of which are revisited in Volver. Once again he concentrates very much on what he calls ‘the female world’, as he has done in several of his best films.
Taking place both in Madrid and a small village in La Mancha, Volver focuses on the lives of three generations of women. Carmen Maura features in her first Almodovar film since 1987’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as Abuela Irene a mother who may or may not be dead but who has come back into the lives of her two daughters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), one a vibrant personality, the other a far more timid character.
These three women are supported and sustained by a large network of female friends and neighbours, including Augustina, their pot-smoking friend, played delightfully by Blanco Portillo. In fact in this, as in so many Almodovar films, it’s the relationships between women that provide the heart of the film, and it is when he is focusing on the ways women communicate with each other that Volver is at its best. He can make the smallest gesture tell a story, a simple greeting kiss can reveal everything you need to know about a family’s dynamics.
This is a very black comedy, capable of making you laugh at the horrible things people will do in a crisis, the lengths to which people will go. There is also a distinct noirish streak running through the film; no one is what they seem and everyone has their secrets.
Almodovar captures the earthy sexuality of Penelope Cruz, who is wonderful in this film as the troubled Raimunda; he seems able to draw the best out of her in a way that so far Hollywood directors have failed. Carmen Maura shows a sure sense of timing whether she is playing things for laughs or tragedy. Best of all is Yohana Cobo who, as Raimunda’s daughter, plays the typical petulant teen with a distinctly knowing edge, making her plight all the more believable.
Almodovar has stated that the actresses in Volver are “the great spectacle” of the film and he’s right. The plot is interesting, the scenery and locations beautiful, but it is the interplay between the four main actresses which makes this film such a joy.