November 30, 2006

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Volver (R)
Penelope Cruz reminds us she can act and Pedro Almodovar reminds us how tender he is when telling the stories of women in Volver, a lovely, melodrama that, if not particularly good, is at least terribly interesting.

Interesting in large part because of Cruz, who (as has been oft-reported) here dresses like a budget Sophia Loren (to such an extent that Almodovar put some padding on her rear to give her more of a womanly figure). The physical presence she creates is captivating — she looks like the tragic heroine who (as Terry Gross pointed out in an interview on Fresh Air) seems to be constantly mere seconds from weeping. Raimunda (Cruz) has a personality to match the bold, dark-eyed, big-red-flower-wearing girl who stares out from the movie's poster. About halfway through the film I realized was paying more attention to strategizing for how I could achieve Raimunda's look (bum-hugging skirts, no problem, but how does she get her eyeliner like that?) than I was to the plot.

Maybe, though, that was for the best.

Raimunda really is a woman on the edge of weeping — weeping because her shiftless husband is unemployed and she is working multiple jobs to carry the family, weeping because it turns out that "shiftless" is nothing compared to her husband's other awful qualities, weeping because she has a horrible past, weeping because her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) has some bad childhood experiences of her own, weeping because her kind Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) is dying, weeping because she never reconciled with her mother Irene (Carmen Maura, star of Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Actually, this last one might not be something that needs crying over. When Aunt Paula fades, her caretaker neighbor Augustina (Blanca Portillo) tells Raimunda's sister Sole (Lola Duenas) that it is the dead Irene who has really been taking care of Aunta Paula. Sole doesn't believe it until the voice of her mother calls out from her car trunk, where Irene has hitched a ride to Sole's house. She's there to offer her younger daughter comfort but also, we eventually learn, to help her older daughter Raimunda, from whom she was estranged before her death (in a mysterious fire, no less).

There are dozens of dark secrets and surprising turns in Volver — surprising, I suppose, if you've never once seen a soap opera. With all the tears (occasionally, they do come rolling out of Raimunda's big eyes) and the talking to ghosts and the sudden violence, Volver isn't all that different from a telenovela. Where it outclasses the Dos Mujeres, Un Caminos of the world is in the smarter dialogue (the English subtitles to the Spanish script do not do justice to the playfulness of the words Almodovar uses), the more fanciful tone (which, miraculously, is only sometimes jarring with the dark subject matter) and the standout acting, particularly of Cruz and Maura. Both women are veterans of Almodovar's movies and seem to know perfectly how to play through the absurdities. B-

Rated R for some sexual content and language (which is strange because you'd think it was the violence that would have something to do with the R rating, also the "language" is in Spanish with some rather awkward English subtitles). Directed and written by Pedro Almodovar, Volver is one hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in limited release (playing locally in Cambridge).

— Amy Diaz