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December 20-26, 2006

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'Volver'

Emilio Pereda and Paulo Ardizzoni
Bench Players: Carmen Maura (left) comes back from the dead to offer some motherly advice to Penélope Cruz in 'Volver.'

Cruz Control

Penélope Cruz adds sexy suds to Pedro Almodóvar's soapy 'Volver'

By Richard von Busack


THE COMMON-PLACE woman's picture is vapid and brittle and rinsed in pastel blue. But Pedro Almodóvar's opuses are luminous and warm and shot with crimson and orange like a fancy cocktail. Ultimately, despite the kind of reception critics have been giving it, Volver is deeper than, say, Fried Green Tomatoes. Almodóvar delivers a civilized sendup of a melodrama, but the very civilization blunts its sharpness. Volver takes place under the dry light of La Mancha, a Spanish plain scoured by the east winds. As the joke goes, the prevailing winds drive the women insane and carry the men to their graves early. Then again, in Volver the men are often better off dead.

The titles weave through a throng of women carefully washing the marble tombs of their parents in La Mancha—such is tradition. On the weekends, these women leave the cities where they work and come back home for Sunday dinner. ("Volver" means "to return.") Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), who moved to Madrid, goes for an after-cemetery snack at the home of her Aunt Paula, played by Almodóvar regular Chus Lampreave. In Almodóvar's movies, Lampreave is Mother Spain: good-hearted, full of piquant proverbs and nuts. The old lady claims that Raimunda's mother is still around, taking care of her. But the mom in question burned to death in an accident years before. Aunt Paula might be right. Irene (Carmen Maura) is either alive or else a very vigorous ghost. She materializes in Madrid at the flat of Raimunda's plain, unmarried sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas). Irene stays in hiding, diving under the bed when anyone comes to the door. But Raimunda has a secret, too: Raimunda's no-good, lecherous husband is dead and currently stashed in the deep-freeze of a nearby restaurant.

Throughout his career, Almodóvar has proved that soap opera can be as artistically legitimate as grand opera. The answer to the next question—"What's in it for the men?"—is easy. Cruz's Raimunda is the kind of woman who has been making Spaniards nervous for centuries: slim and cool but with a bodice that would make any mammal dream of contentment. Cruz is as overwhelming as Sophia Loren was in her prime. And Volver is a rich entertainment. It combines peasant common sense with the lustrous surface that used to be part of the deal with every movie ticket. Still, it doesn't have the mad-eyed quality of Almodóvar's earlier films. Like Buñuel's late-period work, Volver is strangely settled and at peace with the way things are. Almodóvar loves the stillness and safety of the village, as in the scene where the old widows swarm gently around a mourning woman, almost washing over her like a wave. Yet this hamlet lies not too far from Madrid, where you can a get a party going by stopping a few people on the street. Art doesn't have to be about angst. But there has to be some fire in it, and Almodóvar 's fires are banked to a warm glow in Volver. There's maturity in accepting the seemingly changeless injustices of life. In Volver, the dysfunctional family is timeless: generation by generation, men will always be dogs, and the women will always find ways to train them. Or, if necessary, to put them to sleep.


Movie Times Volver (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, photographed by José Luis Alcaine and starring Penelope Cruz, opens Dec. 22.


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