Count me in the minority, but it wasn't until "Volver" that I really began taking Pedro Almodovar seriously as an artist. Almodovar the high stylist is inarguably on display in "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her," but both films, for all their scandalous dealings, felt far too eager to please, even ingratiatingly cloying at times. After "Bad Education," an openly scuzzier movie about the troubles of boys and men, "Volver" is most decidedly a return to the women's picture mode of "All About My Mother," albeit in an earthier, less hermetic scenario. Sort of.
"Volver"'s twists and turns again push into the realms of the implausible and unsavory -- including, but not limited to: incest, murder, molestation, adultery, faked deaths and arson. If you've followed Almodovar at all, none of this will come as particularly shocking. But the central paradox of "Volver" is this: how a film so wholly ornate and unlikely ("neoclassical" seems somehow apropos) ends up the director's most vibrantly immediate work.
This immediacy is due in no small part to another artist I'd never really taken seriously enough: Penelope Cruz. Her Raimunda is a wholly inhabited creation; comparisons to Sophia Loren and the ladies of classic Italian paisan cinema, have been frequent, and are apt, as there hasn't been such a full-blooded woman to grace screens in quite some time. Drop Raimunda into last year's thin batch of Academy Award contenders and they'll all just melt away. Savvier and scrappier than she may be innately intelligent, Raimunda's lot in "Volver" is to merely react, and survive in the face of increasing complication to what begins as a fairly ordered, if not altogether pleasurable existence. Eking out a subsistence living in Madrid with her unemployed boyfriend and teenaged daughter, Raimunda shows frustrations, but once the film begins scratching the surface of a tortured past, it's easier to understand the constantly held tongue that underlies her situation.
She returns home one evening to find her daughter standing with a bloody knife over her boyfriend's body, and her life slowly unravels from there, offering her the opportunity to reinvent herself, and triumphantly. By mid-film she's illicitly taken over a nearby restaurant, making good money catering to a local film crew, and, most memorably, found singing an impromptu flamenco at a party that's tragic and proud in equal turns. As more and more difficulties arise (including the possible return to life of her dead, estranged mother played by Carmen Maura), Raimunda only grows more inventive, and Almodovar deftly structures his multiple through lines, teasing them out to their (il)logical ends. By the time he reaches his conclusion you'll be simultaneously dazzled at "Volver"'s convolutions, and, hopefully, awed by the state of grace they point towards.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He currently works for Magnolia Pictures.
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