Because Pedro Almodóvar made Volver , the film is, almost by definition, deeper, more intelligent, more nuanced and more beautifully filmed than at least 95 percent of the movies coming out of Hollywood — if not more. That being said, while it is definitely a movie worth seeing, in comparison to Almodóvar’s most recent films like La mala educación (Bad Education), Hable con ella (Talk to Her), and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother), Volver lags behind the curve.
Volver (“to return”) opens with Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), and her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Coba) having returned to Raimunda’s home town of La Mancha (Almodóvar’s birthplace) to clean the graves of Raimunda’s parents – apparently a regular ritual in this town – and to visit their somewhat senile aunt. While auntie is clearly no longer all together there, somehow she manages to feed and take care of herself and bake goodies for her nieces. There are rumors of a ghost watching over her.
The women then return to Madrid, where Raimunda is working multiple jobs to get by, while her husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) sits around, drinks beer, and watches a bit of footie. Paco eventually looks a little too fondly at Paula, makes a play, and receives a knife in his chest for his troubles, which Raimunda returns home to discover. (It is easy to understand Paco’s temptation, especially after later revelations, and male viewers will be pleased to know that tempting teenager Paula is really played by a twenty-one year old.)
Raimunda immediately takes charge – there is a powerful scene of her cleaning the kitchen while a still-shell-shocked Paula watches – and stores Paco in the freezer of a next-door neighbor’s shut down restaurant that she is watching over. Simultaneously, auntie dies, and Sole calls Raimunda to return with her to La Mancha for the funeral. Obviously Raimunda cannot, for which she receives much flak.
On her return from the funeral, Sole picks up a surprise guest – their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). Irene appears somewhat ghostlike initially, before it is apparent that, no, she is simply unexpectedly alive. For reasons I won’t tell you, she wants to avoid Raimunda and spends much time hiding under Sole’s bed. The story goes from there, and, before you cry foul that I have revealed too much, the above merely scratches the surface. Much more is to come, including a number of revelations.
Volver is about women, women, and women, which is quite refreshing. Not only are there almost no male characters, but men, with one very significant exception, don’t factor into the film by their absence either. This movie is all about the relationships between mothers, daughters, sisters and female friends and is at times funny, at times heartwarming, and at times tragic. In typical fashion, Almodóvar incorporates affairs, incest, rape, murder, and ghosts without batting an eye or becoming melodramatic. The staging of scenes, the interacting between the actresses, and the cinematography are all brilliant.
Alas, Volver has its flaws. The big secrets and revelations, by the time they come, have been so heavily foreshadowed as to be obvious and anticlimactic. Everything fits together a little too neatly. In the end, the film felt a little flat.
However, to the extent I found myself disappointed, it was because Almodóvar has set the bar so high for himself. I expected to depart more greatly moved than Volver left me, but I am hard pressed to think of many recent movies that are clearly better. If you adjust your expectations and can settle for a well filmed, witty, and moderately moving film, without great insight, you will have a delightful time watching Volver.