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Film Review


(December 19, 2006) Every other year Pedro Almodovar turns out another film: Live Flesh, All About my Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, and now Volver. Never less than brilliant, in Volver he shows us a world of women, where men are simply troublesome at best, and very bad at worst. His women are often burdened with troubles, yet usually persevere and prevail. Unlike his last film, Bad Education, the story here is not malign but is a black comedy. Almodovar looks closely and sympathetically at this world, with relationships among women and their sisterhood.

Living in a contemporary working class Madrid suburb, two sisters, Raimunda and Sole (played by Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas), from a small town, are trying to make a living, Raimunda working in the new airport, and Sole doing hairdressing at home. Both of their parents have died quite recently in a fire. Raimunda's husband has just been fired and seems to do nothing but stay at home, watch tv, and drink. The film opens with a group of women cheerfully cleaning their families' graves, a yearly ritual in a culture where death is considered a natural part of life and many accept that sometimes the dead return to visit the living. Volver is the Spanish verb to return, with a broader meaning than in English. Raimunda is tough, but caring of her family, which includes her 14 year old daughter, Paula. One evening Raimunda returns from work to find Paula standing in the street soaking wet in the rain, and is stunned to hear what has happened. Something terrible, which I do not want to reveal, but Raimunda begins to deal, in every way, with the life changing events. The story is complicated, but unlike Almodovar previous films, entirely linear without flashbacks. This is an extended family, with the sisters' aunt and their cousin still living in their small isolated home town. Their cousin, Augustina, is insistent that she has seen the ghost of their mother taking care of their elderly aunt. And the aunt, although blind and slightly demented, seems to be able to bake quite well and live independently in a clean house. The story moves forward quickly, and resembles a soap opera, but done much more skillfully and always compelling. Dark personal secrets emerge and have great consequences.

Every performance here is outstanding, but Penelope Cruz is fabulous as a gorgeous woman, tough, dynamic, generous, living hand to mouth, enlisting her friends to solve problems that would stop most people. Yet her character has a certain reserve and a secret. Cruz runs away with this film. Her sister Sole, looking for all the world like a very cute Basset hound, is more resigned. Almodovar takes terrible problems and lightens them with comedic touches throughout the film. There is a hilarious sequence with Raimunda's prostitute friend and herself, when she has enlisted her friend to help her do something difficult, where the friend turns and says "I didn't know you liked women" but in a much coarser way. Almodovar clearly loves women. His camera closely observes and often ravishes them. Witness a lingering shot of Penelope Cruz's rear end as she walks away. Not a lecherous look, but an appreciative one. Terrible things happen: death, abandonment, betrayal, yet he presents them all in a somewhat mapcap fashion that is tremendously appealing.

Almodovar's films have always been marked by outstanding cinematography and music, and Volver is no exception. The colors in so many scenes are wonderful and just jump right out. The music could not be better suited. Often his camera angles are unusual, such as a shot from above of a room full of black clad mourning women from the village, seated in a room with a dazzling checkerboard floor. In my opinion, Almodovar is one of the greatest living film makers, and keeps getting better. I loved this film, and think it is easily one of the ten best that I have seen this year. I know I'm a nag, but try to see it on the big screen. Playing at the Clay (on Fillmore). Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and a good good New Year to all.

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