VOLVER, the 16th film directed by Pedro Almodóvar (he wrote it as well) was not only well-received by critics but remains to date his most successful picture with audiences. That’s not surprising, given the warmth, wit, soul and spice with which he and his cast infuse this 2006 ode to women. Young and old, their resilient survival spirits and wrenching emotional rebirths, personified by a faultless troupe of performers, are led by an incandescent performance from Penelope Cruz, in a career high.
‘Raimunda’ (Cruz) and her sister ‘Sole’ (Lola Dueñas) deal with the death of their elderly aunt, who lived in the provincial village they grew up in, located in the countryside of La Mancha. A lethal situation with her vile husband, involving her teenage daughter ‘Paula’ (Yohana Cobo), occupies Raimunda in Madrid, while the single, dutiful Sole attends the funeral in the superstition-saturated village. Family friend ‘Augustina’ (Blaca Portillo), ill with cancer, has a traumatic secret she must share with the already-taxed Raimunda. This kettle of hot tapas not enough, ‘Irene’ (Carmen Maura), the sisters mother, makes a surprise appearance—no less a jolt in that she’s been dead for three years.
Drawing characteristics from women who figured strongly in his own childhood, and from the belief motifs encoded in that mystical arid plain that spawned Don Quixote, Almodovar’s wonderfully rich script manages to juxtapose serious issues like bereavement, sexual abuse, loneliness, betrayal and death with the everyday coping mechanisms that get us through tragedy: humor, decisive action, blood ties, a dash of melodrama and, if you’re lucky, a shield of magic realism.
Deft and fierce, ticklish and trenchant, funny and deep, with the whole cast dead-on-target. Dominating the piece is a raw, disarming, simply beautiful performance from Cruz, who drew an Oscar nomination as Best Actress–the first ever for for a Spanish actress in that category. Helen Mirren’s sterling The Queen took the award, but I think the bone-deep honesty displayed by Cruz went the vaunted Helen one better. *
Telling the tale took $9,400,000. The US take of $12,900,000 was but 15% of an $87,200,000 global success, marked by particularly strong showings in France, Spain and Italy. Critic-wise, it made the A-grade in over two dozen Top-10 lists for the year.
121 minutes that you wish could go on longer, with Chuz Lampreave (the departed aunt), Antonio de la Torre (the husband who gets what he deserves), Leandro Rivera, Yolanda Ramos.
* Penelope Cruz nicked the Supporting Actress Oscar the next year for her fun turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In Volver—earthy and sexy, smart and guarded, cheerful and tearful, wounded and brave— she’s reminiscent of Sophia Loren’s classic work in Yesterday,Today and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style.