Not many directors could take a film built around the theme of death and make it as funny, thoughtful, and deeply meaningful as Pedro Almodóvar has with Volver, now officially Spain's nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. The film revolves around three generations of women: Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) live with Raimunda's husband, an unemployed laborer who spends his spare time checking out his daughter's blossoming body. Raimunda's sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas) supports herself by running an unlicensed beauty shop out of her apartment. As we meet Raimunda, Sole and Paula, they are at the cemetery cleaning the graves of Raimunda and Sole's parents, who died in a fire.
In La Mancha, where Raimunda's parents lived, the east wind blows incessantly, driving people to the brink of insanity. This is a superstitious culture, where the dead are respected, graves are kept clean and tombstones well-polished, and the dead occasionally walk among the living -- especially if they have unfinished business. When Raimunda and Sole go to visit their elderly aunt, they are surprised to find that she refers to their dead mother, Irene, as though she has just seen her. It doesn't take long for Abuela Irene (Carmen Maura) to appear to Sole and Paula, though she conceals her presence from Raimunda. It is with Raimunda, and with Raimunda and Sole's friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) that Abuela Irene has unfinished business to resolve.
Soon after they return to Madrid after visiting her parents' graves, Raimunda finds herself with another problem to deal with: A husband's corpse that must be hidden, and a daughter who must be protected. In the midst of this crisis, Raimunda, who had been struggling to make ends meet, quite unexpectedly finds herself running a restaurant owned by her former neighbor, who just moved away, leaving Raimunda to show his empty restaurant to potential buyers. A film crew stops by to see if Raimunda can cater a meal for them; she impulsively says yes. Next thing you know, Raimunda has roped in several of her neighbors to help and is running a full-fledged restaurant. She hasn't actually told the owner what she's doing, but that's a minor detail compared to the corpse now inhabiting the restaurant's freezer. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Raimunda, her mother's ghost has come back to resolve issues from the past, and is hiding out in Sole's apartment.
The female cast of Volver, as an ensemble, won the award for Best Actress at Cannes earlier this year, along with screenwriting award for Almodóvar. There's been a lot of buzz around Cruz's performance, but there's a reason the award went to all the women and not just one. Cruz is luminously beautiful, yes, but she is also a far more talented actress than she's often given credit for. Her personality is all fire, and the ease with which she can shift emotions -- all anger and passion one minute, the next with tear-filled eyes over-brimming with pent-up feelings -- brings Raimunda to life. Dueñas' performance as Sole could have been lost in the long shadow cast by the more showy Cruz, but in her hands Sole, tenderhearted and deeply grateful to have her mother back, even as a ghost, is subtle and deeply moving. Portillo as Agustina represents the solidarity of female neighbors in La Mancha -- the women who care for each other, look after elderly neighbors, and keep the village secrets. Agustina is a terminally ill woman desperate to resolve the mystery of her own mother's disappearance before she dies, and Portillo portrays her with grace and dignity in a fine and measured performance. Cobo, given the difficult task in many of her scenes of passively reacting to things happening around her rather than acting at the forefront, more than holds her own with the older cast members.
The penultimate moment of the film is a lengthy sequence in which Irene explains to Raimunda why she died and why she has come back. The apparent effortlessness with which Maura imbues her character with genuine emotion during this scene demonstrates the depth of her talent and experience as an actress. The force of her personality radiates through the screen, touching the hearts of each audience member in turn, speaking to buried memories of mother and maternal sacrifice within each of us. Whether your own relationship with your mother is good, bad or indifferent (and for most of us, it is probably a combination of all those things), Volver, with its underlying themes of family and maternal love, cannot help but speak to you on some level.
Volver is a strong effort by Almodovar, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2002's Talk to Her. The story revolves almost exclusively around the female characters, and Almodovar's writing and direction indicate a deeply innate understanding of women and their relationships. The characters in Volver are complexly drawn, with intricate relationships and motivations. Even the theme of death is more than it seems on the surface. While there are surreally funny moments in the film, there is emotion and drama woven around the comedy. More than death, though, Volver is a film about women, family, and motherhood: The ties that bind, the sacrifices a mother will make for her child, the misunderstandings that can tear mother and daughter apart -- and the healing that can come, even beyond death, from the resurrection and reburial of the past.
For another take on Volver, see James Rocchi's review of the film from Cannes.