It doesn't surprise me that "Volver" earned a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival--not for a single actress, but for the entire female ensemble. That's because the whole cast is wonderful, and this film by Pedro Almodóvar is as much about women as "Steel Magnolias" or "Fried Green Tomatoes."
"Volver" reunites the director with Carmen Maura, who appeared in Almodóvar's first film, "Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap" (1980), as well as four others--the most recent prior to this outing being "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988). It also brings together two more Almodóvar alums, Penelope Cruz ("All About My Mother," 1999) and Chus Lampreave ("The Flower of My Secret," 1995, and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?", 1985).
Cruz has strikingly dramatic features, and so directors can be forgiven if the tendency has been to push her in the direction of passion and excess. But Almodóvar went the other way and pulled an Academy Award-nominated performance out of her by going for quiet confidence and understatement. Cruz certainly turns in the most impressive performance I've ever seen of hers. As Raimunda, she displays all the grace and determination of a survivor, and as a Madrid woman who goes to her parents' village on the outskirts of the city, she's not the only one. The men tend to die young here (it's "that goddamn East wind that drives people here crazy," Raimunda suspects), and so the women spend their Sundays cleaning and polishing headstones in the cemetery. One of them, a cancer victim named Agustina (Blanca Portillo), finds it relaxing to polish her own tombstone.
It's a custom for the women in the village to arrange for their own gravesites and markers, and that makes sense if the men are already dead and aren't there to do it for them. But it's also the plinth upon which Almodóvar, who wrote the screenplay, builds this black comedy. Death is right there, in front of everyone, and so of course it's possible to be so casual in the face of it. Well, maybe on the surface.
You see, neither Raimunda nor her sister, Soledad (Lola Duenas), has come to terms with the death of their parents, who apparently died in a fire locked in each other's embrace. Then again, they're not the only ones haunted. Neighbors claim to have seen the ghost of Irene (Maura) walking around the house of her sister, the girls' Tia Paula (Lampreave). And the ghost in "Ghost" has nothing over this woman. So Patrick Swayze put his hands over Demi Moore's as she worked the potter's wheel. Big deal. The ghost of their mother, Irene, helps with the laundry, the cooking, and the cleaning! Then one day she shows herself to Soledad. Good thing it wasn't Raimunda, who has her own problems to contend with. "Female problems," she tells Emilio, her boss at the restaurant, as he calls on her to give her the key to the place that's up for sale and notices blood on her neck. O-kay. But if she gets "confused" easily, chalk it up to the annoyance of having an out-of-work husband (Antonio de la Torre) whom she comes to loathe, more than love, ever day.
The tongue-in-cheek comedy is partly the result of situation and partly due to Almodóvar's snappy script. When Raimunda visits Tia Paula with her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo, in an impressive film debut), Auntie looks Raimunda up and down and says, "You look thin. Have you had the baby yet?" Without blinking an eyelash or skipping a beat, Raimunda says, "Yes, 14 years ago," to which Tia Paula replies, "Doesn't time fly." It's all so deliciously dead-panned. Then there's Agustina, with her cancer-patient crew-cut, who points proudly to an old picture of her mother on the wall and declares that she was the first hippie in the village. "Cutting edge. Every time I smoke a joint, I think of her." Great stuff.
"Volver" means "to return" in Spanish, and it's meant, of course, to suggest the mother's return to the daughters she feels she has to help. But Mom has a secret of her own, too, and Almodóvar's script and direction dispense comedy and information with all the careful efficiency of a pharmacist doling out pills.
Almodóvar is fond of overhead shots, which, given Cruz, tend to be down-blouse shots. I don't think it's meant to be lecherous. It's more likely that he needs to leave eye-level perspective every now and then in order to remind himself of how strange and, yes, wonderful everyday life is if you look at it from a different point of view. "Volver," a refreshingly low-key film that's nonetheless briskly paced, does that admirably, with a strong script, strong acting, and just the right amount of tongue in cheek to make it all work. "Volver" is rated "R" for language and brief sexual content involving the daughter.
Almodóvar has a thing about flowers, and they appear all through the film, as well as on the captivating cover of the DVD and Blu-ray releases. The film is presented in Hi-Def 1080p, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. From frame to frame, the images are vivid and meticulously defined, which is becoming more standard for Blu-ray releases these days. Color saturation is great, black levels are great, and the amount of detail is great. No complaints here.
The audio isn't quite as impressive, but then again this isn't a film that's built upon a soundtrack with a lot of bells and whistles. The featured audio is Spanish PCM 5.1 (uncompressed), with Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 also an option. Subtitles are in English and English SDH.
Almodóvar is joined on a commentary track by Cruz, who mostly defers to the director or echoes what he has to say. It's a good listen, with the usual variety of technical statements, strategies, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes (mostly the former). Almodóvar says that the film is about "the female universe in relation to death," and it's interesting to hear his take on the underlying themes.
"The Making of 'Volver'" is a music-driven montage of behind-the-scenes shots with no narration. It might satisfy people's curiosity about what things looked like during filming, but you won't learn anything. Better are separate interviews (with the interviewer off-camera) with Almodóvar, Cruz, and Maura, and a "Tribute to Cruz" (did she die?) which is really mostly another interview with her featuring an on-camera questioner who sucks up to her a little more than I'm comfortable with. There's also footage from AFI Fest 2006, and rounding out the extras is a photo gallery featuring production stills and posters.
It isn't just Penelope Cruz's Oscar-nominated performance that makes "Volver" worth watching. Pedro Almodóvar writes and directs a black comedy masterpiece that features an ensemble cast as good as any.