Written & Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Not very far into Volver, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), is standing over a dead body in her kitchen when a knock comes on the front door. It’s her landlord, and he notices a bit of blood on her neck. “Are you hurt?” he asks and, without missing a beat, she replies, “No. It’s women’s troubles.” Women's Troubles, were it not so euphemistically uncouth, would've been an excellent alternate title for Volver; hardly a man appears in it, and when one does, like Cruz's husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre)—who is introduced by a POV shot of his teenage daughter's crotch—it's only to cause trouble.
Raimunda hides the aforementioned body inside of a freezer in her landlord's neighboring, boarded-up restaurant, which she then decides to, without permission, open up and manage herself. Meanwhile, her sister, Soledad (Lola Dueñas), moves-in with their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), who incidentally died four years prior (!?), and an old neighbor (Blanca Portillo) from the sisters' hometown is looking for answers to her own mother's mysterious disappearance, which also occurred four years earlier. Like any old melodrama, these plot lines all intersect with heated results, but Almodóvar takes them places Douglas Sirk would never have dared dream, lest the MPAA have shipped him back to Germany. Volver might arguably be a generic "woman's picture", but in its proud portrayal of feministic independence and its frank tackling of taboo subjects it's distinctively modern (there isn't even a standard romantic subplot), an aughties soap opera of sorts, grounded in the doughty performances of its leading ladies. It's a portrait of women more than just emotionally strong—when a refrigerator needs to be moved, it's a pack of women who do it, no muscle-bound men required; and if they don't even need a man to move heavy machinery, what else would they need one for?
Almodóvar's deep and genuine appreciation for women applies to not just their fortitude and derring-do but to their physical beauty as well—and, well, why not? Penelope Cruz has never looked lovlier, but neither has she ever acted better or had a more complex and admirable character to take on. As a contrast, however, the few men who appear as characters in the story aren't particularly appealing, sexually or otherwise: Paco's venereal violence, as exhibited when cruelly masturbating in bed beside a tearful Raimunda or while shooting salacious gazes at his daughter, is abhorrently frightening, while Cruz's father—already dead when the action begins, having died in a fire with his wife—is revealed to have been a philanderer...and worse, the sort of fellow you could imagine sharing a circle of Hell with John Huston's character from Chinatown. He was "born to hurt the women who loved him," according to Irene's ghost—to put it mildly—and it's a description that neatly fits Paco as well. (The only man who comes off well is the production manager of a film crew shooting nearby, a marginal character notable only for his sex, who everyday orders lunch for the cast and crew at Cruz’s restaurant. He’s nice enough, I guess, particularly in relation to Paco, who we see watching his topless daughter furtively and lasciviously through her narrowly opened bedroom door.)
Fires blaze in past and present while ominous easterlies blow-in (having a sort of full-moon effect on the characters' sanities), foreshadowing the arrival of Irene's ghost, the return of the repressed. Meanwhile, the screen is awash in deep red, as though barrels of blood and Cabernet were tossed around the sets and wardrobe to illustrate the fiery, flaring and stirring repressions that infect every character and their relationships to one another. (Almodovar, when developing Irene, Sole and Raimunda, might have had Ezekiel 19:12 on his mind: "[the tree] was uprooted in burning wrath, and made low on the earth; the east wind came, drying her up, and her branches were broken off; her strong rod became dry, the fire made a meal of it." A masculine God would allow such a thing to happen to a feminine tree!) Volver, as its title implies—it's the unconjugated Spanish verb for “return”—is about reappearances, repetitions, and do-overs; about revisiting the unresolved wrongs of the past, as buried sins are exhumed in the present, resurfacing in new yet familiar shapes. Volver opens with Cruz and Soledad cleaning-off their mother's tombstone, but some things can't just be brushed away.
Yet Volver thankfully eschews easy histrionics in favor of something more difficult—subtle though colorful drama. Almodóvar, like the smell of paperback books, is just getting better with age; with Volver, he has finally mastered the melodrama, a triumph he’s been striving after for, arguably, his entire career. Volver is both artificial and credible, and Cruz owns it with her surprising virtuosity, breathlessly portraying an exasperated, put-upon, yet resilient woman with a string of misfortunes too terrible to be true, were it not for her dramatic believability. For all its barbarity, though, for its cynical portrait of an evil world, Volver says it's never too late to undo the wrongs of the past, to make the world right again. Talk about a lot of gorgeous, heart-warming/tear-jerking phony baloney. It's marvelous.