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Penélope Cruz illuminates Almodóvar’s ‘Volver’

Brian Doxtader | Monday, March 26, 2007

No film by writer-director Pedro Almodóvar is ultimately what it seems to be about, and “Volver,” his latest, is no exception. His pictures, which are usually sensitive and perceptive melodramas, start simplistically, but gradually reveal their thematic complexity – often, as in the case of the critically acclaimed “Hable con ella” (“Talk to Her”), things are not all that they seem. “Volver” is the work of the director at the height of his cinematic powers, a film that is simultaneously funny, touching and sad.

The film follows two sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas). Raimunda is a janitor who lives with her unemployed husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) in Madrid. At the beginning of the film, the sisters visit their Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who is being cared for by the neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo).

After Paula (Raimunda’s daughter) accidentally kills Paco when he tries to sexually assault her, Raimunda takes a job catering for a film crew at the nearby restaurant. Meanwhile, Aunt Paula dies and Sole goes to the funeral, where she believes she sees the surprisingly corporeal spirit of her dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura). From there, “Volver” takes on an almost mythical quality, but Almodóvar has the good sense to ground the film and resolve its issues in ways that are logical and narratively sound.

As funny and engaging as it is affecting, “Volver” is one of those rare serio-comedies that actually works. There are hints of tragedy, and its revelations are slowly introduced, which gives the film strong emotional undercurrents – the audience never feels lost as Almodóvar takes it through various plot twists and turns.

“Volver” is not as brash as some of Almodóvar’s other films, and the director reeled in some of his more excessive tendencies, though he still has a penchant for odd camera angles and colorful compositions. The cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine (who also worked with Almodóvar on his previous film, “La mala educacion” [“Bad Education”]), is gorgeous, especially in its elegant camera movement. Yet the film is clearly the brainchild of Almodóvar, whose writing and directing is in top form – his impeccable filmmaking sense really gives “Volver” a lot of character, which ultimately anchors it emotionally.

The acting is across-the-board excellent, though it’s Cruz who commands the picture. More at home with her native Spanish, the actress is absolutely brilliant here, doing the best work of her career as Raimunda, a character whose emotional depth ranges from shallow and funny to deep and heartfelt – although, to be honest, her looks are a little distracting. It’s hard to imagine Raimunda as part of the same gene pool that produced the frumpy Sole or the matronly Irene (though Almodóvar winkingly acknowledges this throughout this film with various comments about Raimunda’s cleavage).

“Volver” may not be Almodóvar’s best work – it doesn’t have the same visceral impact of “Hable con ella” – but it indicates that the director is reaching a zenith. His storytelling is in top form, and he balances all the story threads with aplomb and elegance. “Volver” was criminally overlooked upon its initial American release, but its reputation will surely grow as viewers discover Almodóvar’s gem of a film.