Pedro Almodovar's latest movie is a comical, affectionate joyride of feminine optimism. Volver is at once fantastic television trash and a revelation of warm-hearted humanism, displayed through the ripe primary colours of Penelope Cruz's wardrobe and lipsticks and the mythic milieu of rural Spain. There're nods to Hitchcock and a knifed body stuffed in a fridge, there's a dark secret waiting to be disclosed, and there are moments when the surreal intrudes on the mundane, but all technical and structural discussion is moot and superfluous when the movie sends us out full, sad, and happy.
Funny if anyone would perceive the film as an "arthouse" movie (probably with a sneer), given that it was premiered in Cannes last year, and considering that it's a baby girl from a homosexual European filmmaker glorified by critics and cinephiles of all orientations. If anything, nearly all of Almodovar's films - from his madcap early opuses like Law of Desire and Kika to tender fares like All About My Mother, Talk To Her and apparently Volver - have proved how art - sincere, honest art firmly rooted in local sensibilities - can blur and break up the distinctions between what we believe to be high, middle, and low-brow works. And if there's any "brow" worth reviewing in Volver, they are the rich, arrow-like, cupid-carved eyebrows of the director's goddess: Cruz.
It seems like the vividness of the entire film has its source in the sparkling lava of Cruz's beauty: But remember, this is an actress, when acting in Spanish, whose talent is much more exciting than her cleavage. Cruz plays Raimunda, a woman from the rougher part of town, a mother who endures all sorts of female troubles, including her vile new husband who lusts after her teenage daughter Paula (Cobo). But even as she swears and sweats, as she draws blood from the man who wrongs her and drags his heavy, lifeless body around - in Almodovar's world, males are often a burden - Cruz manages to remain a slim gazelle who skips about with such grace. It's well-known that Almodovar reveres classic Hollywood beauties, the likes of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but Cruz is the director's supreme Sultana of present-day La Mancha, the sleepy rural domain in which a large part of Volver is set.
When the film opens, Raimunda and several other women are scrubbing the stone graves in a cemetary; for these hard-working females, duties include tending to the dead as well as the living. Soon afterwards we're introduced to different generations of women who make up the chromosomes of Spanish femininity, each of them played by Almodovar's favourite muses. Raimunda has a sister, Sole (Lola Duenas) who's now living in Madrid after leaving their hometown of La Mancha. Their mother, Irene, (Carmen Maura) died in a fire many years back, though her sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) becomes convinced that Irene's ghost has come back to visit her in the house. Paula is sick, and she's being cared for by Augustina (Blanca Portillo), whose own mother also disappeared years before.
Volver means "coming back" in Spanish, and the motif is manifest in the return of Irene, Raimunda's supposedly dead mother, into the realm of the living. For Almodovar, motherly love hardly ceases even when a mother no longer lives with her daughters. Irene's resuscitation - her homecoming - is treated matter-of-factly by the director and his actresses, and the delicate fibre of the narrative doesn't suffer any rupture from this bizarre plot point. If this were the riotous beginning of his career, Almodovar might have seized the opportunity to spin the absurd threads of biting comedy by having the dead lecture the living. But what we're seeing here, despite what looks like the ghost of Irene, is a tragi-comedy of struggling human beings who constantly discover a new meaning of the word "family".
Almodovar has waded into this water more than once before, but it's still bracing to witness him shifting the tones of the story so fluidly, as his chirpy flock of tough, determined birds whirl in and out like great gusts of wind. An absurd douche into the suspense takes place when Raimunda devises a plan to get rid off her major "female trouble" (how this sequence resembles the ordeal of a character in the Thai film 6ixtynin9!), then we emerge into a sequence of colourful conviviality when Raimunda takes over a neighbourhood restaurant, throws a party for a film crew shooting nearby, and surprises us by breaking into a gentle musical interlude. What a mother - a woman - can do, or has to do, in an Almodovar movie covers a startling range from the darkest of crimes to the silliest of activities. The kick is when we realise that these women do everything they do because their generous hearts tell them so.
Recently, someone threw me a pseudo-cryptic question: Can we classify a movie by its gender? Can we say a movie is male or female, in the same sense that we distinguish a man from a woman?
As far as I know, a film cannot grow a sexual organ, so this is a purely rhetorical question. Usually, any form of demographic classification is the work of marketers - this is a "chick flick", this is a "tough-guy picture", this is a "teen comedy". Stereotype is useful in selling products, movies included. But sometimes when a film is made with as much heart as with hands, it could rise beyond such simplification and divisive segmentation. And of course it could transcend the gender frontier. Brokeback Mountain is a love story, not just a gay love story. Volver may dispense with men and celebrate the beauty, the spirit and the follies of women, but that's exactly why men should be able to appreciate it as much as their girlfriends will.