Without much kink or florid hysteria to enliven its narrative complications, Volver proves to be one of Pedro Almodóvar’s most temperamentally restrained efforts, though such a muted tone doesn’t detract from its emotional power. The Spanish maestro’s latest is, as its title (translation: “To Return”) implies, a revisitation of many familiar Almodóvar fixations (if not his gaudy, transgressive inclinations), with its roots firmly planted in classical Hollywood melodrama, film noir, and his most abiding interest: the contentious but indissoluble bond shared between mothers and daughters. Freely referencing Mildred Pierce, this tale of murder, long-suppressed secrets and familial unity focuses on single mother Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) who, along with daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), finds her life turned upside-down by a series of unexpected events including the sudden death of senile Aunt Paula (What Have I Done to Deserve This?’s Chus Lampreave), the cancer diagnosis handed to friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), the death of Raimunda’s good-for-nothing husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and – most shockingly – the ghostly reappearance of their dead mother (Carmen Maura).
Surreptitiously taking over an acquaintance’s restaurant business while sister Sole continues to run an illegal hair salon operation from her apartment, Raimunda navigates a cozy Madrid largely devoid of men, a situation that allows the filmmaker to keenly focus his gaze on the intimate and idiosyncratic interactions of his independent urban women. Still, while his story’s potentially overheated convolutions seem primed for some typical Almodóvarian flamboyance, the director repeatedly eschews outrageousness in favor of relaxed poignancy, from a wind-swept credit sequence featuring widows obsessively cleaning the graves of their dearly departed, to a final, bittersweet depiction of compassionate altruism. Such dedication to subdued sentimentality is ably assisted by the gorgeous Cruz, who as Raimunda conveys a full spectrum of nuanced emotions – from sorrow and fierce protectiveness to bitchiness, kindness and desperate longing – and, in doing so, crafts a magnificent portrait of strong, self-sufficient womanhood that stands as the performance of her career. However, as with most of his oeuvre, the ultimate star of Volver is Almodóvar himself, here subtly employing noir-ish horn-and-piano tunes, supple editing, and discreet use of symbolic color (for instance, a bright red bus passing across the screen immediately before Raimunda hears treacherous news) to bestow his low-key saga of maternal-sibling reconciliation and female solidarity with assured grace and just a hint of moody, devilish wit.
(The 44th New York Film Festival)