Volver (2006): Almodovar’s Oscar-Nominated Tale of Mother and Daughter, with Towering Performance from Penelope Cruz

Cannes Film Festival 2006–One of the few artistic highlights at this year’s rather weak Cannes Festival competition, “Volver” finds Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar in a particularly good form, with a movie that’s bound to please many more viewers than his last, harsher noir, “Bad Education,” which was male-driven.

The English translation of “Volver” is “To Return” (or Comeback”), and indeed, Almodovar’s new film represents several “returns.” First, he returns to his personal roots in La Mancha, where he was born. He also returns to his origins as a filmmaker, working mainly with women in a movie that celebrates women.

The movie also represents a return for star Penelope Cruz, the Spanish actress, who had smaller roles in Almodvars “Live Flesh” and “All About My Mother. In excellent shape under Alomodavar’s direction, Cruz, has never been or looked better. Finally, after a long absence, Almodovar is reunited with terrific actress Carmen Maura, who inspired and shaped many of his 1980s pictures until a rumored falling-out (due to personal reasons).

The movie’s title also refers to a tango song made famous by Carlos Gardel that occupies a special emotional place in the hearts of generations of Spaniards; it is sung in the film by Cruz’s character, dubbed by the noted flamenco singer Estrella Morente.

Though lacking the camp and colorful elements of such Almodovar’s femme-driven movies as “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown,” Volver is nevertheless a serio comedy-melodrama with many moments of dramatic intensity as in All About My Mother but also humor that derives directly from the characters and their tangled web of relationships.

Additionally, Almodovar pays tribute to classic Italian neo-realism as seen in the films of Roberto Rossellinni and Vittorio De Sica, particularly those that place strong women at their centers, such as Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren.

The film’s first scene takes place opens in a windswept cemetery, showing a group of women cleaning up the tombs of their departed loved ones. The strong winds are mythical, able to drive the locals crazy, or crazy enough to believe in the possibility of ghosts of their loved ones returning from their graves to inspire (and haunt) the living.

The story is set in a traditional small town, to which Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) returns with her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) to visit her aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), a kind woman who had raised her in the absence of her mother. The rest of the yarn goes back and forth between La Mancha’s small village and Madrid, where La Mancha’ women try to get by in low-paid jobs, suffer through bad relationships with men (spouses or lovers), but immensely rewarded with intimate bonds with mothers and tight friendships with female friends.

Back in Madrid, Raimunda faces tragedy, when returning home from work, she finds her unemployed and drunken husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) stabbed to death by their teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), acting in self-defense after he had abused her. Raimunda hides his corpse in the icebox of the restaurant next door, which is closed for business, and later dumps the body. The feminist point is made clear. Paco represents a wifes nightmare, a sexist and misogynist who stares at young girls and masturbates, even when Raimunda is next to him.

Life seems to resume its normal, ordinary shape, until strange events begin to happen. As in most melodramas, family secrets abound. Here, they are hinted at during the visit but not revealed. Her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) receives a visit from their mother Irene (Carmen Maura), who’s presumed to be dead. Sole and Paula try to keep Irene hidden from Raimunda.

Paula is named after Tia or Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), the older sister of Raimundas and Soles mother Irene (Maura played Lampreaves daughter-in-law in another film). Sole is divorced and lives alone (though she later takes in a Russian immigrant), while Raimunda and Paula form an all-female household after Paco’s death.

As noted, Alomodovar pays homage to the Italian neo-realist film movement of the late 1940s and early 1950. “Volver” makes explicit reference to Anna Magnani in “Bellissima.” There are also allusions to other literary works about women, such as Lorca’s “House of Bernarda Alba,” which centers on a group of women and deals with sexual repression. The presence of Lampreave and Maura in the cast and some thematic similarities also suggest links to Almodovar’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This”

A subtle director, Almodovar has become an expert at bringing humor and even pathos (but not sentimentality) out of morbid situations. Hence, the dead mother arrives folded in the trunk of her daughters car; how many helmers can pull off such a scene

Shots of Cruz washing a large kitchen knife in the sink is never exploitative in a way that it would be in an American movie. The sights of Cruzs deep cleavage and her rubbing of the knife (a phallic object) are presented as emblems of eroticism, womanhood, and empowerment.

Cinematographer Jos Luis Alcaine, who also shot “Bad Education,” gives the movie a textured and subdued look, with some exceptions that link this movie to other Almodovar’s works. You may notice the stylistic continuity of the color red, here in close-ups of paper towels and knife soaked in blood, and, in a typical and playful Almodvarian mode in some of the dresses and flowers.

After making many disappointing American pictures, Penelope Cruz is terrific in a subtle portrayal of a working mother in despair. She should have won the Best Actress prize in Cannes, but the Jury awarded the entore ensemble of women.

Blanca Portillo, a stage actress known in Spain for a TV sitcom, is a also good as the tragic Agustina. Maura excels as the ghost-mother; Alomodvar has said that he consulted with his sisters for this movie and that Maura’s character is a personal creation.

The whole film could be read as celebration of womanhood in general and motherhood in particular. Which might explain why the women miss and mourn more the lack of their mothers than that of their husbands or men. The La Mancha womens dedication to making food for all (and occasionally using kitchen utensils as personal weapons), caring for the sick, attending the proper funerary rites of the dead, are all virtues elevated and commemorated by Almodovar, a women’s director in the best sense of this term.