"The strongest pain medicine you can buy without a prescription"
So how good is Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest effort? “Volver” (to return) is so mesmerizingly quirky that I sat through a screening with an injured right arm writhing with pain as I became immersed in the film. Almodóvar beats Novocain any day. After seeing what Almodóvar could do with his storytelling, my eventual trip to the hospital much more pleasant.Almodóvar effortlessly bends, breaks and fuse genres that shouldn’t be compatible. He combines quirky comedy with Hitcockian suspense and even throws in a touch of the supernatural.
The director also gives Penélope Cruz her first worthwhile role in years. If you haven’t seen Cruz in any the movies she’s made back in her native Spain like “Abre los ojos” or Almodóvar’s “Todo sobre mi madre” (where she plays a nun dying of AIDS), it’s hard to get a sense of how most of her English-language work has short changed her talent.
As with Almodóvar’s other movies, the ensemble is typically solid, but Cruz pursues the role with an energy she hasn’t demonstrated in years. In “Volver,” she has an almost glowing presence that and a vivacity that American filmmakers haven’t seemed to capture.
She plays Raimunda, a working mother from Madrid whose drab life is about to change dramatically. Her husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) seems glued to his couch while she’s maintaining the house, raising for their teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) and bringing home a paycheck.
Raimunda has also become deeply concerned about her aging aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who lives in a rural village. Paula is clearly too far gone mentally to care for herself, but mysteriously her house is clean, and there’s always food.
Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) aren’t sure what to make of the situation, but many of the locals and their friend Augustina (Blanca Portillo)think that Raimunda’s estranged mother Irene (Almodóvar veteran Carmen Maura) may be behind all of this.
The only problem with that theory is that Irene was supposed to have died in a fire nearly twelve years before.
Almodóvar manages to take the setup into some intriguingly unexpected directions. In Paco’s absence, Raimunda becomes resourceful and savvy. There are some mysteries involved in the storyline, but the real payoff comes from watching her mature.
Raimunda uses her newfound freedom to help those around her as well as herself. She reopens a café and employs a local prostitute as a bartender.
Because Raimunda is such an engaging character, “Volver” becomes one of Almodóvar’s more accessible movies. I’ve always admired the way he can warm a viewer’s heart as he’s occasionally churning a viewer’s stomach. But this time he’s managed to make a group of characters that a viewer can consistently empathize with.
The characters in “Volver” have shades of gray (which is impressive considering Almodóvar’s vivid color schemes). As the movie progresses, we discover that even the loathsome Paco has redeeming traits.You won’t have to crack your arm to enjoy this movie, but Almodóvar’s cinema is potent medicine.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.