Sony // 2006 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // April 3rd, 2007
Raimunda: Sole...are there other things I should know about?
Volver delivers a colorful valentine from Pedro Almodovar to the unbreakable spirit of women. The action begins and ends in a village where the women always outlive the men, and then religiously tend to their graves as a thrice weekly task. There's hardly a male character to be found in the two hours, and when we do see men they are of little consequence or quickly exit. I've heard people ironically remark that the film stars Penelope Cruz (Vanilla Sky) "and her boobs," and they're not far off...but somehow forget to also include the prominence of her "fake ass" (she was padded for the production). Despite the attention to anatomy, Almodovar isn't creating a sex comedy, nor do we see Penelope exploited in any way. The breasts and butt remain fully clothed throughout (even if prominently displayed through cloth), and Cruz is given her most impressive role to date. The actress earned a 2006 Oscar nomination for playing a mother in an impossible situation, and it is remarkable to see her perform in her native tongue. Yet she's not the only woman with something to say in Volver. You'll find a chorus of three female generations tied to the windy, death-obsessed fable village of La Mancha that speaks through the film.
We begin inside what seems to be a ghost story. Raimunda (Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas, The Sea Inside) are sisters who lost both their parents in a tragic fire caused by the wind of their home village. Yet their ailing, elderly aunt claims their mother (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) appears to her and helps her fix food and takes care of her. Some of the villagers claim they have seen her ghost wandering the streets. Raimunda doesn't have much time for her mother's mystery. Her out-of-work husband is starting to abuse her daughter (Yohana Cobo, Only Human), and a horrible accident happens. She finds herself trying to figure out how to dispose of a body while simultaneously running a neighbor's restaurant to raise money.
Almodovar crafts films constructed around a single idea or metaphor, and this one can be found right in the title. Volver, when roughly translated, means "coming back" or "to return" in English. The story revolves around the idea nicely. We have sisters coming back to their home village, a deceased mother who appears to have come back from the dead, and the resilience involved in coming back out of a bad situation. The film is about returning to emotional places as you plow through life, and the impact this has on your psyche and decisions. Even on a literal level Almodovar was reunited with two actresses who came back to his set; Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura both rose to notoriety in his projects. The director himself returns to familiar territory by revisiting the theme of strong women after the darkly gay, masculine Bad Education. This is a story about women and their rituals, from cooking to constantly kissing, which provide running gags throughout.
Volver hinges on three generations of women, and it shows an amazing amount of love for its ladies no matter what their age or standing in life. Much has been made about Penelope Cruz's triumphant turn as Raimunda, and the actress is a revelation when we contrast this role with the fluffy work in Bandidas, Sahara, and Gothika. Here Cruz recalls the great screen siren Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce with her fierce protection of her daughter and interest in running a restaurant. She is an icon already, but only when she is allowed the luxury of working in Spanish. When Cruz acts in her own language she seems free, and it's easier for her to disappear into the role. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved, as you can't peel your eyes off her anytime she appears on the screen. Her performance is supported by a strong ensemble of women who are right on par with her commitment to Volver. Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, and Yohana Cobo match Cruz in intensity and together they make the movie a delight to watch. Each woman could have been Oscar nominated but for the fact American audiences will be less familiar with their faces. The women cheerfully slog through a story that combines murder, reincarnation, illness, shocking revelations, and serious meditations on relationships all funneled into a comedy with skillful ease. The cast is the real reason Volver works as well as it does.
Even though the topic of death is a constant theme, Volver feels light and spry with a decidedly comedic flair. There's a ton of plot, and it's handled nimbly with the mark of artisans. Fantastic events, stunning revelations, and hilarious mishaps are punctuated with a tender, real love for the people. Almodovar skillfully finds the heart of each woman, and his love for them keeps even the most unbelievable moments grounded in emotional truth. This is easily one of the best films of 2006 and among the Spanish director's most accomplished projects, marked with his bursts of outrageous style and a newfound maturity which removes the punk aura of his '80s work. Volver was conceived many years ago, yet everyone passionately jumped into the film wholeheartedly. It was made with great care and boundless passion, and every beat has been meditated on endlessly. There's not one wasted shot or missed moment. Almodovar is a unique director, and his colorful stamp can be seen even when he pays homage to Hitchcock during several moments with a knife and a dead body. His blood is in technicolor as a counterpoint to Hitchcock's black and white Psycho.
Sony Classics has provided a fully loaded DVD with an incredible widescreen transfer. The 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is perfectly preserved as well as the vivid color palette which is translated immaculately with the passionate reds dominating the screen. Visually the film impresses, and there's no problems with black levels or edge enhancement. We only have the Spanish language track provided in surround which delivers the score and dialogue well; thankfully the producers have avoided an English dub. The sound mix is not as impressive as the visual treatment but it is amicably competent. Extras include a Spanish commentary with Almodovar and Cruz who have an easy, relaxed relationship; they explain the film eloquently. Not surprisingly, Almodovar dominates the track with only occasional interjection from his actress. Featurettes include a making-of montage set to music, publicity interviews with the director and two lead actresses, and footage from an AFI ceremony where Penelope Cruz was honored. Also added are photo and poster galleries and previews for other foreign language films available from the distributor. You couldn't ask for better treatment of Volver, and it isn't even labeled a "collector's edition" even though it feels exhaustive.
The biggest surprise is how mundane Volver turns out to be, and how it could even be criticized as a soap opera delivered unconventionally. The random tangents provided by the sudsy approach may throw some audience members. Viewers expecting an emotionally wrenching Academy Award performance from Penelope Cruz will be surprised to find Volver restrained in many ways. She was nominated for "playing it plain" and allowing Almodovar to ugly her up a bit. This isn't a flashy role, and I am shocked how much the Academy Award nomination has factored into the marketing of the film when it's really more about the story and the ensemble. If you're not a fan of Almodovar's stylization the film may seem cartoonish. The director typically plays with colors and fable elements, which can seem disconcerting at times. But the emotional truth always spikes through, no matter how broadly he paints the scenes. It's definitely worth sticking it out if the film seems too much in the first reel. As fantastic as the events can be, the movie is more concerned with daily living than any of the fable elements.
Volver marks the triumphant return of old school Almodovar and a reunion with two of his muses. Though American audiences will look towards the Oscar-nominated Penelope Cruz with great interest, she is surrounded by a strong ensemble who deliver this tale with unflinching honesty. Volver is a refreshing take on the strength of women who handle amazing events with feminine grace and warmth. Sony Classics delivers a beautiful DVD loaded with great extras. This is one to own, and Almodovar fans will be absolutely thrilled with the release.
Guilty of making me a believer in the talents of Penelope Cruz, Volver is a moving meditation on classic Almodovar themes. Women and death never looked so good while simultaneously reveling in the mundane.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Director Pedro Almodovar and Actress Penelope Cruz
* Featurette: Behind the Scenes
* Interviews with Pedro Almodovar, Penelope Cruz, and Carmen Maura
* Footage from an AFI Tribute to Penelope Cruz
* Photo Gallery