Pedro Almodóvar's new film begins in a wind-swept village cemetery, where women furiously scrub the mausoleums to keep the past from vanishing beneath a veil of dust. Raimunda is tidying her mother's tomb, with a bit of desultory help from her sullen teenage daughter. She's returned to her ancestral town to check up on her frail aunt and hears some disturbing news—that her mother has returned from the dead in order to care for her ailing sister.
Volver explores the powerful generational bonds between mothers and daughters. As one mother returns from the dead (volver means "to return") to repair shredded relations with her daughter, this daughter must in turn nurture her ties both with the past and the future. Is it comforting or disturbing for the dead to walk amongst the living? Does a corporeal visitation prick any less than the mirror's shocking revelation that your face has become your mother's face?
Penelope Cruz's magnificent, Oscar-nominated performance as Raimunda also marks a welcome return to Spain from the wife-and-girlfriend ghetto of her disappointing Hollywood sojourn. (Male-centered American movies do actresses no favors.) Working again for Almodóvar, she sensually evokes Mediterranean heroines such as those played in the 1950s and '60s by Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren. With her quivering cleavage and damply tousled hairdo, Cruz deals forthrightly with an errant smear of blood, which she calls "woman troubles." She works hard, she cleans hard, she cooks hard, she nurtures.
Carmen Maura's impish turn as her mother foreshadows Raimunda's future, and her granddaughter Paula's, both in the story but also in the context of Almodóvar's work, as Maura is the director's former muse. The ominous washing of a large carving knife in a sinkful of dirty dishes, accompanied by a Bernard Hermann-ish phrase, precedes a distinctly Hitchcockian plot turn. But it is only a diversion from the real story, the mutable interconnections between the three generations of women, the relationships between food and personal histories (wafers, just like your mother made them) and culturally specific sounds. The soundtrack pulses with the effusive kissing embraces between friends, the clattering of funeral fans and the appealing breathiness of Castilian Spanish.
There is Almodóvar's signature color red, too, in the titles and hither and yon in the frame, carrying the eye from scene to scene. Volver is a female-centered melodrama. The men, if not merely impediments, are downright villains. They are so peripheral to this world that even the charming fellow who hires Raimunda as a caterer for a film crew is ultimately brushed aside as irrelevant (in a Hollywood film, he would be Raimunda's salvation).
Although in some ways a serious film about the burdens of women in a patriarchal society (if a film with hardly any men in it can be viewed as patriarchal), there are intellectual and visual pleasures, fierce performances and a satisfying dénouement. Life can't be bleak watching the radiant Cruz, even with her sensual lips unsmilingly pressed together. Embrace the past: It's wearing your mother's frumpy dress.
Volver opens Friday in select theaters.