November 13, 2006

MOVIES: Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)

Whaddya know? Turns out that Penelope Cruz can act after all.

There were hints in her earlier work, I suppose; she was notably better in the Spanish film Abre los ojos than she was playing the same role in the English-language remake Vanilla Sky. But she's flat-out marvelous in Pedro Almodovar's Volver, a lovely story about the power of mother-daughter relationships and the ways in which we can never really escape the places we come from.

Cruz plays Raimunda, and we first see her in the cemetery with her sister (Lola Duenas) and daughter (Yohana Cobo), cleaning her mother's grave. They have come to the rural part of Spain where Raimunda and Sole grew up (they have long since moved to the city) to tend to the grave and to visit an elderly aunt (a lovely small performance by Chuz Lampreave).

How Aunt Paula tends for herself is something of a mystery; she can barely get around her house or see anymore, and yet she always has Tupperware dishes full of goodies for Raimunda and Sole whenever they come to visit. The rumor in the village is that the ghost of Paula's sister -- Raimunda and Sole's mother -- lives with and cares for her. But if that's true, where is the ghost of Irene (Carmen Maura) to go when Aunt Paula dies? Why, she returns to her daughters, of course, and begins involving herself in their lives.

Men are irrelevant here; there's only one significant male character -- Raimunda's husband -- and he's removed from the action very early (Cruz's best work in the movie comes here, I think, as she calmly does what must be done in the wake of his departure). It's a movie about women, and the principal actresses are all superb; they collectively won the Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival (the only one I haven't mentioned is Blanca Portillo, who plays a family friend with her own complicated problems).

The movie leans to the melodramatic, though less flamboyantly than usual for Almodovar; the Douglas Sirk influence is tempered with touches of Italian neo-realism (surely it's no accident that Cruz often looks much like Sophia Loren) and hints of magic realism. It's a splendid piece of entertainment, and shouldn't be missed.

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