“A vision of forgiveness beyond the grave”
I now can say I have seen a Pedro Almodóvar film in the theatre. Sure I saw five of the eight films included in ¡Viva Pedro!, but those were dvd projections, while Volver was the real thing (as evidenced by it catching fire causing the six or so of us watching to wait a bit before seeing the final twenty minutes). I will admit, while enjoying Pedro’s lighter, earlier fare, it is the dramatic and dark films I really have an affinity for. Carne trémula and Hable con ella are brilliant movies that left an indelible mark on me once they concluded. Volver has moments of true emotional resonance, but there is a bit too much playfulness and an inconsistent tone that prevented it from being the masterpiece most critics are calling it, for me at least. I was captivated by the performances and the seemingly slight storyline, trying to figure out where it was going. However, a lot goes on that, while pulling a Usual Suspects twist, really is a series of McGuffins. Like that movie did for me, Volver proves that a great 180-degree flip at the end does not make a great film out of the hour and a half before it. Pedro definitely had something here, and while a very good film, just didn’t quite seem to know how serious to take it.
Even if the film was utter crap, I would still have given it a good rating based on the phenomenal performance from Penélope Cruz. She has always been panned as an English-speaking actress, yet hailed as one of the best when in her native language. It’s true—I have not seen a really great role from her in English, (Vanilla Sky was good, but knowing that she was in the Spanish original, I have to hold judgment until seeing Abre los ojos), and the foreign movies I’ve seen with her showed a more confident skilled professional. Both times seeing Cruz in her natural element were in Pedro films, but unlike Carne trémula and Todo sobre mi madre, where she played somewhat shy women, relying on her friends, here in Volver, she has an almost sexual awakening from those previous roles. One could say that this film is a vehicle for Cruz’s gorgeous figure as much as the story being told. She is simply beautiful throughout, and it’s that beauty and self-assuredness that makes the touching moments of poignancy that much more effective. She goes through all emotions here, and I believe if Pedro allowed the film to stay true to the dramatic elements rather than playing some serious moments as comedic, her performance would have been elevated even higher.
The supporting characters all do great work as well. Lola Dueñas is great as the sister whose secret knowledge of their mother’s return from the afterlife constantly keeps her on her toes. The facial expressions are priceless when trying to keep her stories straight with her sister and hairstyle customers. With her role here and in the fantastic Mar adentro, (coincidentally directed by Alejandro Amenábar who did the aforementioned Abre los ojos), I really hope more of the hugely successful Spanish directors today utilize her immense talents. As for the ghost of a mother, Carmen Maura, Pedro’s old muse, returns in front of his camera. She plays the part perfectly where you can never quite see if she is a ghost or really there. Her comedic timing is precisely on the mark each instance needed, but again I feel it could have been better used in a different film. I also must mention Chus Lampreave with her distinctive voice and delivery, shining again in a small role. Almost every Pedro film I’ve seen has had her involved.
My review here might seem a bit harsh, but let me say I really enjoyed the film. It is just the knowledge of what Almodóvar can do with a dramatic piece of work that makes me think of how much more the movie could have been. No one does female-driven stories of family, love, and grief better, and it is just a shame many Americans don’t have a clue about him. Hopefully Pedro will never sellout and do an English language film unless it’s necessary for the story; he is too good at showing the culture of his home country of Spain. I have no clue if what he displays is true Spanish culture, but the opening scenes, with the tombstone cleaning, the funeral stories, and the non-stop kissing-greetings, make me feel totally surrounded by this foreign land.
Volver 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
 Penelope Cruz. Photo by: Paola Ardizzoni y Emilio Pereda
 Carmen Maura as Grandmother Irene. Photo by Emilio Pereda and Paola Ardizzoni © Emilio Pereda and Paola Ardizzoni / El Deseo, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved