Can we finally dispense with the popular proclamation that Pedro AlmodÃ³var is the great director of women? The almost entirely female slew of characters in "Volver" are gorgeously photographed (PenÃ©lope Cruz has never look better) â€” the camera’s loving, lust-free gaze lingers on their ankles, plunging necklines and possibly prosthetic rears. They are vulnerable but resourceful, they are fierce and loving in their friendships and familial relationships, they greet each other with an amplified buss on each cheek, and their sweeping, unarticulated sisterhood hovers beyond the detection of men, who in the film exist only to admire from afar or wound up close. They are so not real.
This is beyond the director’s standard adulation of women; this is mythologizing a concept of femininity constructed from idealized maternal memories, Douglas Sirk, Sophia Loren and a touch of camp. That’s not so much a criticism (though it does chafe a bit) as an observation; "Volver" is more indulgent and inward-looking than it first appears, a journey into AlmodÃ³varian fantasyland.
The film is possibly his least challenging. It is a pleasure to watch, as warm and comforting as its fanciful narrative concept, that one’s mother could return from the grave to provide solace and support when it is most needed. Cruz’s character, Raimunda, is the film’s luminous, suffering center, supporting her drunk layabout husband and her teenage daughter Paula by working several jobs, and sometimes driving back to the village in which she grew up to check in on and fret over her senile aunt, who seems to be doing mystifyingly well living by herself. When her husband makes a (not so incestuous, we soon learn) move on Paula and the girl unintentionally kills him in self-defense, Raimunda hides the body in the freezer of nearby recently closed restaurant. In doing so she serendipitously stumbles upon a new source of income â€” providing meals for a film crew shooting in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, her sister Sole returns from a funeral in the village to find a stowaway in her trunk â€” her mother Irene, who supposedly died in a fire five years ago, and who’s played by the marvelous, mischievous-eyed Carmen Maura. Hijinks ensue â€” Irene finds ways to hide from Raimunda, not yet ready to confront her; Raimunda disposes of the body with the help of the requisite cheery local prostitute; family secrets emerge.
We’ve never been particular devotees of AlmodÃ³var, but if we sound a bit hostile in writing about "Volver," it’s not because it’s a bad film. It’s just too easy. We don’t begrudge his longing to return to a more naive mode of filmmaking, but here it feels like he’s coasting through familiar territory, and there are scattered moments of greatness that are frustrating reminders of what he’s done in the past. We seem to be in the critical minority with this one â€” there is no denying that the film is imminently watchable, if not so memorable.
Screens at Alice Tully Hall on October 7 and 8; opens in New York and L.A. on November 3rd.