Here at Cannes, Pedro Almodóvar has a sort of favorite-son status: A European filmmaker with a world-wide fan base, who makes unapologetically arty films that nonetheless deliver solid, pulpy entertainment loaded with sex and death and ideas and concepts. Volver is no exception, and as I write this sitting cross-legged in a press line on Wednesday afternoon, odds are good that either Volver or Iñárritu's Babel will take the festival's top prize, the Palme D'Or, on Saturday night.
Volver is strong by Almodóvar's standards (which means it's very strong indeed): Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, a wife, mother and sister living in Madrid. Volver opens with Raimunda, her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and Raimunda's daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) cleaning and sprucing up the grave of Raimunda and Sole's mother and father; the two died in a house fire three years ago.
But mom's spirit is still very much about -- not just in Raimunda and Sole's lives and hearts, but also more literally in the life of aunt Augustina (Blanca Portillo). Augustina's mind is slowly failing, and she's convinced that her sister Abuela is still alive. When Raimunda, Sole and Paula return home, however, they have to stop thinking about ghosts -- because Raimunda and Paula have to deal with an actual corpse in their lives.
From that point on, Volver treads familiar (but still engaging) Almodóvar territory -- family, food, secrets, lies and love. Almodóvar's 2002 film Talk to Her is a little stronger than Volver (in my opinion): It had a freshness, a sense of newness, that Volver doesn't. The suggestion that the openly gay Almodóvar is perhaps a bit more comfortable with female characters and sensibilities hardly comes as a shock to anyone who's seen even one of his films, but of Volver's four central male characters (one of whom is dead and never seen), two are sexually predatory within their own families ... and the other two have no more than four lines each.
And it's not just the male characters who feel under-written; as appealing a screen presence as Cruz is (even with relatively limited acting skills -- Cruz's two main expressions are furrowing her brow in puzzlement and smiling like a sunbeam, and she uses them in about 99% of her scenes), her central presence in the film doesn't leave a lot of room for the equally appealing Dueñas. Sole's part blooms in the second half of the film, but it's a pity Almodóvar couldn't find more for Dueñas to do.
Volver, in the words of our British friends, "does what it says on the box;" if you were looking for an example of an Almodóvar film to show someone who'd never seen one, this would be as good a contender as any to offer as emblematic of the director's skills and concerns, themes and techniques. If Volver does take the Palme D'Or, it'll be because Almodóvar's work and past give it a little push; at the same time, though, the film's charm, warmth and whimsy are powerful enough that if it does win, it'll be petty larceny and not grand theft.