“It is precisely about death,” says Pedro Almodóvar of his latest film Volver. “More than about death itself; the screenplay talks about the rich culture that surrounds death in the region of La Mancha, where I was born. It is about the way (not tragic at all) in which various female characters, of different generations, deal with this culture.” And Almodóvar sees the occasion fit for equal bouts of comedy and drama, telling a story about how we react when loved ones die leaving questions unanswered. Volver, pronounced “Bol-Ber”, is Spanish for “Return” and it’s part of the greater complexities of the film.
Two sisters, Raimunda and Sole (Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas), visit their parents’ grave in the small Spanish village they’re from to give it a traditional cleaning. While in town, they visit their Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and are amazed at how active she is despite being half blind and a little docile. Aunt Paula’s neighbour Augustina (Blanca Portillo) tells the sisters that she believes that Aunt Paula’s been communicating with the spirit of their dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), as she’s overheard Paula talk to Irene on several occasions. After Aunt Paula dies, Sole discovers, much to her own dismay, that Augustina was right, as Irene appears to her after the funeral. But is Irene a ghost or is their some deeper meaning to her reappearance. Meanwhile, Raimunda and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) deal with some ghosts of their own and revelations that may be linked to the reasons for Irene’s return.
Volver is smartly written and doesn’t offer pat answers to the questions it poses. It does, however, neatly tie the two main mysteries together into one compelling narrative. Without spoiling anything, all I will say is that the resolution to the film’s central mysteries is highly satisfying without any requisite head scratching. The performances are also really well rounded with a lot of praise going to Cruz and Maura, who only share a few scenes but manage to say so much in the little screen time they have together. It’s very easy to not think much of Cruz in her short skirts and high heels, but the wardrobe choices are a total affectation that hides how easily Cruz disappears into the role of a woman walking an emotional high wire act. The big complaint is that Almodóvar leaves several threads hanging in the side stories, but ultimately you don’t notice because the central story is so compelling.
If you’re looking for a funny, emotional and involving family story with well-rounded characters, then you can do no better than Volver. It’s a compelling study about what gets left behind when someone dies and how we the living try to move on. Almodóvar once again proves himself the master of complex, female-centric storytelling that has crossover appeal to anyone from any walk of life.