2007-05-14 12:01

In the lively working class neighbourhoods of Madrid, two sisters mourn their mother’s untimely loss, but get on with life nonetheless. Raimunda (Pénelope Cruz) has a deadbeat husband and a teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) to take care of, and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) has an illicit hair salon to run. When their aged aunt (Chus Lampreave) dies, Sole returns to the village to mourn alongside their long-time neighbour Agustina (Blanca Portillo) who had, apparently, been caring for the aunt. But when she returns to Madrid she has an unexpected stowaway, her dead mother (Carmen Maura). Now Sole must keep the troubled Raimunda from finding out about this strangely solid ghost and give her a chance to sort out her already complicated life.


In Spanish “volver” means many things. At its most simple it means “coming back”, but it also implies turning your back on someone, changing direction in your life and returning a favour. It’s typical of writer/director Pedro Almodovar to pick such a deceptively simple word as his title. Like his movie, the word conjures up far more meaning than its modest appearance would suggest.

Like most of Almodovar’s work, Volver defies easy categorisation. A master of manipulation, he mixes light comedy with heavy melodrama, macabre surrealism with breezy naturalism and silliness with sincerity. That said, Volver has all the hallmarks of his other films: a reverence for strong, capable women; a fascination with the seedier side of society and exquisite use of colour.

What sets Volver apart from Almodovar’s other films is its loose structure and freeform plot. Where a film like A Bad Education was a tightly coiled set of stories within stories, Volver is a meandering affair, less about a strictly linear plot and more about the emotional arc of the characters. It’s not that things don’t happen in the movie – there are plenty of intriguing events and even a big twist at the end – it’s more that they are secondary to how the characters deal with them and each other.

This kind of stylistically slippery script demands extremely strong performances from the cast, and Almodovar couldn’t have asked for a better lead than Pénelope Cruz. Cruz has always been a passionate actress, but never has she attacked a role with so much guile or gusto. Like the movie itself, her Raimunda is a hundred things at once and changeable as the weather. At times weak, then strong; angry, then happy; comforting then callous, but always vividly alive and utterly believable, Raimunda is the beating heart on whose blood the movie lives.

Yet Cruz never overshadows her fellow cast members, all of whom occupy their own niches in Almodovar’s tapestry of womanhood. Lola Dueñas is endearing as Raimunda’s gawky younger sister Sole, and veteran actress Carmen Maura is at her quirky, captivating best as their dead mother. Maura has a long history of collaboration with Almodovar, and even appeared in his very first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom. One of the allusions of the title is certainly Maura’s “return” to Almodovar’s films.

Despite it’s pedigree Volver is an easy movie to underestimate. On the surface it reads as a slightly seedy melodrama with some chuckles thrown in to lighten things up. But it’s the kind of movie that stays with you after you leave the theatre, and changes each time you think about it. Beneath the air-headed exterior is a rich and complex human drama, full of startling observations.

And yet it’s also the kind of film that a casual theatregoer with no prior knowledge of Almodovar can enjoy. This is no obscure, foreign art film – this is a vivid, funny, affectionate slice of life that can be gobbled down with relish. So take a bite of Volver this weekend, you might just enjoy the flavour.

- Alistair Fairweather
The only thing more complex and luminous than Volver is its leading lady. This is Pedro Almodovar at his delicious best.

Andrea 2007/02/09 6:52 PM
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