A Women's World in Madrid
There aren't enough movies like Volver. It's gentle and full of warmth; most of all, it's a women's film -- about women, fueled by the instincts of women -- that doesn't resort to obvious melodrama or push-button emotions. But what else would we expect from a movie by Pedro Almodóvar? He's shown that of all the things he's good at, he's at his best when allowing his stories to flow with the rolling rhythm of his characters' thoughts, feelings, and actions.
As such, a movie like Volver isn't so much about its plot as it is about its characters, and yet this one has an overseeing plot that's quite intriguing. It involves two sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), who live in Madrid, and their dead mother (Carmen Maura), who doesn't seem as if she's fully left this world. Does she have unfinished business that she'd like to resolve with her daughters? This idea of a ghostly visitor, which would normally be front and center in almost any other conventional movie, takes something of a backseat to the numerous relationship threads that run throughout this movie. They weave a tapestry of personal storylines that displays interesting and unexpected colors.
What we see is a collage of nurturing and protective instincts, maternal and communal bonding, and hurtful secrets that seek paths to forgiveness. Male characters who have caused some kind of pain soon create independent women who've escaped from them. The movie is being compared to Mildred Pierce, and it contains a several parallels, one of which involves Raimunda running a restaurant successfully on her own. But in the way this film creates a living, breathing network of women who both create the dramatic situations and uncover the paths to their resolutions, it is unique and thoughtful. It reminds me a bit of Antonia's Line in how it presents the tone of a female community -- and Volver may actually feel more authentic and natural in this regard.
For an Almodóvar movie, Volver is relatively light and doesn't contain as much of his usual fancy flourishes or gleefully twisted humor. Instead, it allows its actors to have their moments. I'm traditionally not a Cruz fan, but only Almodóvar has ever made her effective for me -- first in All About My Mother and now in this. Here, Cruz feels real and recognizable, and the cast around her are equal to the task of bringing a comforting humanity to the show, including Yohana Cobo as Raimunda's daughter and Blanca Portillo as a kind neighbor who eventually asks Raimunda for a peculiar favor.
The cast lends a strength to the picture, which would probably not stand up as well if it were more dependent on its plot. A few of the developments strain belief, but in the end what we take away is the sense of a distinct world and the people who live in it. And with Almodóvar toning himself down a bit, Volver becomes more approachable and less self-conscious, attaining a sense of modesty in storytelling and presentation. It does, however, retain his custom of balancing the misfortunes of life with a joy and individual perseverance. To the louder affairs with bigger things to say, this movie becomes a sweet and unassuming alternative.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for some sexual content and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.