“Volver” means “Coming Back,” and that’s an appropriate title for Pedro Almodovar’s new picture. Not only is it about the return of a woman presumed dead after a long absence, but after the brilliant “Bad Education,” easily his best film and a masterpiece by any standard, it represents somewhat of a regression for the director, hearkening back to his earlier work—mostly overpraised—rather than building on his last achievement. It’s moderately enjoyable, but a step back rather than forward.
In typical Almodovar fashion, the film mingles disparate elements—whimsy, light comedy, dark melodrama, suspense—in telling its story, a multi-generational tale of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Again typically, the colors—especially the reds—are fervid and the tone alternately languid and intense.
And “Volver” is a woman’s picture in the Almodovarian sense—not only in that it mimics a swooning, Douglas Sirk-like style but because the male characters are mostly superfluous and sometimes positively malevolent.
It centers on two dissimilar sisters living in Madrid—Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful, vivacious and hardworking woman with a gorgeous teen daughter named Paula (Yohana Cobo) and a layabout second husband named Paco (Antonio de Torre), and Sole (Lola Duenas), a single—and rather frumpy—hairdresser. The sisters and Paula sometimes visit their elderly aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) back in their home village in La Mancha, and during one of their stays Raimunda begins to suspect that some mysterious person is living with her aunt, though it’s a spinster neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who’s caring for the old lady. Agustina’s mother, curiously, had died on the very day that the sisters’ parents had perished in a fire.
Things change as a result of two deaths. One is Paco’s; the younger Paula kills her randy stepfather when he gets drunk and assaults her, and Raimunda not only cleans up the mess but insists on taking responsibility for it. Before long she’s transferred the body to a refrigerator and will eventually try to dispose of it in a shallow riverside grave with the help of her neighbor, the hearty hooker Regina (Maria Isabel Diaz). But by then she will have accidentally become the proprietor of a nearby restaurant, whose owner left its key in her care while he went away.
The other death is that of Aunt Paula, whose funeral Raimunda can’t attend because she’s in the midst of her domestic cleanup. It’s then that Sole is confronted by what appears to be the ghost of her mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who has before long made her way to the capital and taken up residence with her daughter in the guise of a Russian assistant. And Raimunda soon confronts Irene as well. Intermingled with their story is that of Agustina, virtually a third daughter, who travels to Madrid to ask a special favor.
Obviously “Volver” is about bridging both the line between the living and the dead—an opening shot of rural women cleaning the graves of their departed family members establishes the theme (and contrasts it with Raimunda’s treatment of Paco)—and the misunderstandings that divide mothers and daughters. It deals with these potentially heavyweight subjects in a fashion that mixes florid melodrama with a kind of magical realism. The result isn’t as sheerly over-the-top as some of Almodovar’s previous pictures, but it’s still distinctively his, with Jose Luis Alcaine’s cinematography and Alberto Iglesias’ score contributing to the characteristic ambiance.
The performances throughout are first-rate, with Maura, Duenas and Portillo all splendid. But it’s Cruz who carries the movie with her propulsive turn as Raimunda, capturing the woman’s intensity and her underlying sadness. She also beautifully manages another of the director’s trademarks when she lip-synchs to a tango-based ballad called “Volver,” in what becomes a sort of show-stopping musical number.
That’s just another way in which this is a signature piece for Almodovar. The problem is that while you won’t be able to confuse it with the work of any other director, in some ways it’s just too typical to transcend his norm.
“Volver” is engaging, but it’s awfully redolent of Almodovar’s earlier work, and compared to “Bad Education,” it’s considerably less challenging and impressive.