Over the last two decades, Pedro Almodóvar has gone from being
the
enfant terrible of Spanish filmmaking to one of its leading
proponents. As a movie maker, he has grown in confidence and ability
so that his earlier work has matured. In the last decade or so, dating
from
THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET (1995), he has become a fine
craftsman who can shape a movie into a memorable experience. And yet,
in that same time, he also seems to have fallen into something of a
creative rut. He has settled into the themes and ideals he wishes
to explore and has done so over a series of movies with uneven results.
When
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER opened 2000, I was enthralled by it,
but seeing it again recently, I had a slightly different reaction to it.
The cracks, which I suspect were always there, showed. Similar feelings
were aroused after additional viewings of
 LIVE FLESH, TALK TO HER
and BAD EDUCATION. Don't misunderstand, there is much to admire
in these films, especially the manner in which Almodóvar handles his
actors, but there also is a constant feeling that the director is rehashing
stories. While
THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET has its flaws, it seems
to be the fountain from which all of his later work flows. Almodóvar
has found the themes he wants to address and everything that follows
is merely variations. In and of itself, that is not necessarily a bad thing,
but critics and reviewers seem to be giving him a pass on his efforts,
with each subsequent film deemed a masterpiece, even a weaker one
like his latest
VOLVER.

VOLVER gets its title from a plaintive tango and it translates in
English to "coming back" or "returning." In several ways, the movie
does mark a return for Almodóvar, specifically to the area of his birth
and upbringing in La Mancha, where part of the film is set. It also
marks the first time in more than two decades that he has worked with
one of his earlier muses, the great Carmen Maura, here cast as Irene,
the dead mother of heroine Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her sister
Soledad (Lola Dueñes) who seemingly has returned as a ghostly
presence. The director also resumes his thematic exploration of
motherhood. He also mixes in liberal doses of melodrama,
film noir,
neo-realism, and comedy. The result is pleasant and agreeable, if not
quite on par with some of his other films.

The film's complicated plot strands follow Raimunda as she
copes with caring for her aged aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) as well
as her nubile teen daughter, also named Paula (Yohana Cobo).
Raimunda also has to deal with her louse of a husband Paco (Antonio
de La Torre) who is quickly dispatched at the hands of young Paula
after trying to molest her. Raimunda tells her daughter that she will
take the credit for the murder and then stuffs the body in a freezer
in a nearby abandoned restaurant. By mistake, a crew member from
a local film thinks she is reopening the place and hires her to cater
meals. Raimunda finds support from her neighbors, including a
prostitute who helps her dispose of the body. This is in direct contrast
to family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), stuck in La Mancha and
full of questions about what happened to her own mother.

There is also a deep dark secret regarding Raimunda which
accounts for the arrival of Irene -- who may not be as ghostly as
she first seems. Maura has little to do in the film in the first half
but Almodóvar makes up for it by giving her a long monologue
allowing the actress a prime chance to show off her prodigious talent.
Indeed, Almodóvar shows that he is arguably one of contemporary
cinemas best directors of women. Lampreave is marvelous as the
frail aunt and Dueñes is heartbreaking as lonely Sole. Working in her
native tongue, Cruz gets to remind audiences just how strong a
performer she is. Instead of the decorative and wooden portrayals
she has been relegated to in American films, here she is sexy,
vibrant and strong. Cruz is made to resemble 1960s actresses like
Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani but she is not quite in their league.
This is especially evident when Almodóvar includes a film clip of
Magnani in
BELLISIMA (1951). But the most memorable work comes
from Blanca Portillo as a plain country woman coping with loss and
illness.

While Almodóvar has indicated in interviews that he had
particular ideas in mind when he wrote the screenplay and that
it contains a major theme of reconciliation, I came to feel that he
didn't quite achieve his goals. He raises some intriguing and
moving ideas in
VOLVER, but the plot strands are not woven tightly
together, remaining loose and frayed. It's a shame, because the
potential was there for a great film. Instead, we merely get a good one.


    Rating:                B
    Running time:      120 mins.
    MPAA rating:        R for some sexual content and language
Volver
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.