Volver, which means "to come back," marks the return of fashionable director Pedro Almodóvar. Preceded by a theatrical retrospective entitled Viva Pedro, Volver arrives already anointed as the next great Almodóvar film. Though its humble pleasures give cause to pause and reflect on the Spanish filmmaker's occasionally overpraised output, Volver is a diverting melodrama tarted up in Almodóvar's trademark blazes of red.
Penélope Cruz (All About My Mother) stars as Raimunda, the suddenly single working-class mother of blossoming teenager Paula (Yohana Cobo). Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) tow Paula as they visit and care for her namesake: dotty aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). The elder Paula claims to be visited, regularly, by the ghost of her sister Irene (Carmen Maura), the late mother of Raimunda and Sole.
Soon, everyone in wind-swept La Mancha is seeing the ghost, who clearly has unfinished business since her tragic immolation in a fire that also claimed her husband. Irene's protective maternal instinct becomes reflected in Raimunda when young Paula embroils her mother in a crime. Naturally, Irene's unexpected return—and refusal to go away—opens old wounds in the process of attempting to heal them. Aside from the sisterly and maternal bonds between women, the story considers the surprisingly vital relationship between the living and the dead, and the tendency of buried secrets to unearth themselves.
Almodóvar's compulsion to return to classic Hollywood films, in this case Mildred Pierce, contributes to the impression of a tchotchke made with undue attention to stylish detail. Recent Almodóvar films like All About My Mother and Bad Education drew viewers with their tension of overstatement and understatement, and though Volver shares with them visual eccentricity, its understated side never quite digs in with its depiction of women doin' it for themselves (the writer-director calls his style here "surrealistic naturalism").
Seemingly important plot points come out of nowhere and return to nowhere just as unceremoniously, so with the exception of Raimunda (powered by the sheer sexy-earthy will of Cruz), the characters' lives remain remote. The writer-director doesn't make this film's unrealities as rich or intricate as usual, and since he's hardly going for realism either, Volver is a bit like an soufflé that remains edible despite having failed to rise.
Despite its vague disappointment, Volver is the work of a confident filmmaker, and there's a welcome sincerity to his counter-cultural cinematic celebration of women, and in his nostalgia for the place of his own birth and upbringing. The strong evocation of working-class Madrid and potent performances by Cruz and Maura (who returns to Almodóvar seventeen years after Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) make Volver worth seeing once, but it's doubtful viewers will "come back" often to this skillfully hyped addition to the Almodóvar oeuvre.