Pedro Almodovar is gay, but he loves the ladies. The Spanish writer/director has focused on women or transsexual men in most of his best films, from “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” to “Talk to Her.” In fact his latest, “Volver” (“to return”), has almost no men in it at all, not even for the heavy lifting of freezers and the burying of bodies. The guy you think is going to turn out to be the love interest? Doesn’t happen. Who needs him?!
Has there been a resurgence in Hitchcock appreciation in Spain lately? Last year’s “El Crimen Perfecto” had sequences that paid homage to the master of suspense, and “Volver” could have been made by old Alfred himself. There is a murder, a cover-up, and a disposal, along with visits from beyond the grave and a bevy of unresolved mother issues. Almodovar’s regular composer, Alberto Iglesias, has even produced a score that recalls, where appropriate, the tense agitation of a score by Hitchcock favorite Bernard Hermann.
“Volver” isn’t really a suspense film, though. It’s a comedy and a drama about an assortment of Spanish women of several generations — Almodovar’s favorite subject. At the center are Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola DueÃ±as), grown women and best friends whose parents died in a fire a few years ago. Their dotty aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) rattles around the house alone now and still talks to her departed sister (the women’s mother) as though she were there.
Raimunda and Sole have a good friend, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who lives next door to Aunt Paula and checks in on her now and then. Augustina’s own mother disappeared without a trace three years ago, and Augustina grieves continually over it.
Then a couple of things happen that are better left as surprises. Someone dies messily (and deservedly), leaving Raimunda and her 14-year-old daughter (Yohana Cobo) to deal with the aftermath. And then someone returns to Sole’s life, someone she thought she’d never see again, apparently to finish unfinished business. Raimunda and Sole are thus hiding things from one another for much of the film, each madly trying to sort out her affairs without the other catching on.
All of this, even the darker material, is handled wryly, whimsically, with Almodovar’s usual pixie-ish humor and amazing insight into women’s minds. The women work on patching up their fractured relationships while hiding fugitives and disposing of bodies, managing the mundane along with the extraordinary. Today’s single woman is a multi-tasker, you see.
“Volver” doesn’t have quite the emotional impact of Almodovar’s best films, nor the whacked-out lunacy of his most outrageous. It doesn’t resonate as deeply. Yet with a sweet stand-out performance by Penelope Cruz and able turns by her co-stars, it’s a satisfying and enjoyable film nonetheless.
B (2 hrs., 1 min.; Spanish with subtitles; )