Volver (Spain, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

All the world is in love with Almodovar, or at least so he would have us believe. His full name is Pedro Almodovar, but no one bothers with the first name, least of all Pedro. His movies trumpet "A Film by Almodovar" with pride, and his latest, Volver, is no exception. Although not on par with the Spanish director's best movies (which include Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,Live Flesh, All About My Mother, and Talk to Her), Volver represents a return to form after the disappointment that was Bad Education. This feature, which could be considered a ghost story, combines drama and absurdist comedy in the genre-bending manner Almodovar is known for. Although Volver has a tendency to stray too far down tangential paths, it is ultimately satisfying.

One could argue that Volver is a good soap opera. Indeed, its lurid secrets and surprise revelations grip us in much the same way as a sudsy TV series. We can't wait to see how certain things are going to turn out. This is a little unusual for Almodovar, but he proves to be a master of this approach. Along the way, there's plenty of off-center comedy. The director has matured over the years. His productions have become less garish, but he has lost little of his flair for the absurd.

The film opens with a scene in a graveyard - appropriate for a ghost story. Women are shown cleaning off headstones that are being covered by dust from a relentless windstorm. Here we meet Raimunda (Penelope Cruz); her sister, Sole (Lola Duenas); and her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). They are caring for the graves of their mother and father, who died together four years ago in a fire. Also among the tombstones is Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who is cleaning off the future site where she intends to be buried. She is an old neighbor of Raimunda and the two have a shared past.

From this point, the plot spins off in numerous directions. There's a murder and Raimunda must figure out what to do with the body. There's a death in the family that further complicates matters. Raimunda finds her true calling in life in operating a restaurant, but is doing so illegally. Then there's the surprise appearance of Raimunda and Sole's mother, Abuela Irene (Carmen Maura), who makes her return from the dead in the trunk of Sole's car.

As usual, Almodovar draws strong performances from all of his actors. Returning "regulars" Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura are in top form. Neither has any difficulty with the frequent shifts in tone. With her wide eyes and bemused expression, Lola Duenas is a solid addition. (She had a small part in Talk to Her.) Newcomer Yohana Cobo proves to be a real find. Her dialogue is limited, but she's on screen for a large percentage of scenes, and she leaves an impression.

The main storyline of Volver is engaging, but the film's seemingly random tangents will interfere with some viewers' enjoyment of the movie as a whole. Volver is a little too long; while "character building" sequences such as Raimunda's opening a restaurant provide additional definition for the protagonist, they interrupt the flow of the primary plot. The overall effect is not unpleasant, but this is not the tightest script Almodovar has directed. In recent years, the director has made a new film every two to three years, and the movies almost always play several major festivals before receiving a general release. Volver is worth a trip to a local art house.

Volver (Spain, 2006)

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar
Cinematography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Music: Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1