(director/writer: Pedro Almodovar; cinematographer: Jose Luis Alcaine; editor: José Salcedo; music: Alberto Iglesias; cast: (Penélope Cruz (Raimunda), Carmen Maura (Abuela Irene), Lola Dueñas (Sole), Blanca Portillo (Agustina), Yohana Cobo (Paula), Chus Lampreave (Tía Paula), Antonio de la Torre (Paco), Carlos Blanco (Emilio); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Esther García; Sony Pictures Classics; 2006-Spain-in Spanish with English subtitles)

“It feels like a Chabrol film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title Volver translates as Coming Back—that is “back from the dead”— in Pedro Almodovar’s (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”/”Live Flesh”/”All About My Mother”/”Talk to Her”) 16th feature, which proves to be one of his more mature but less impudent works. Almodóvar at the Cannes Film Festival describes it as “a meeting of Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace, combined with the surrealistic naturalism of my fourth film What Have I Done to Deserve This?” It feels like a Chabrol film, without too much of Almodovar’s usual kinkiness and hysteria it almost dips into being a straightforward lurid soap opera melodrama that wears its emotions on its sleeves for only the women. The women are all nurturing souls and the men are all disposable figures, who vanish one way or another during the narrative and are not really missed. It’s a family drama, with long held deadly family secrets, that’s turned into an unrealistic murder story, one where the comedy is understated and the lessons dished out buffet style are deliciously poignant. It’s from a self-assured director who can effortlessly tell a well-conceived lighthearted story by just establishing mood and grounding the film in place and filling it visually with red.

It opens in the small windswept village outside of Madrid called La Mancha (the childhood hometown of the director), where single parent earth mother Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a role at one time reserved for Italian actress Anna Magnani, and her fearful plain looking sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), who operates an illegal beauty salon at her Madrid home, are cleaning the headstone of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura) and father who died many years earlier in a fire, as is the local custom; also present is Raimunda’s sullen teen daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo).

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

Later that night at her home in Madrid, Raimunda returns from working at her cleaning lady job at the airport to find her drunken worthless husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) dead from a knife wound on the kitchen floor after attempting to molest Paula (reminiscent of the 1958 killing of Johnny Stompanato by Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter Cheryl); the quick thinking protective mother efficiently cleans up the bloody mess (as if she were in a Hitchcock film) and hides the body in the red freezer of a restaurant her former boss Emilio has put up for sale and she was given the keys in case somebody shows up to buy his business since she lives nearby and he trusts her. At the same time, Raimunda’s dotty elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) died. She had been looked after by her friendly neighbor, the cancer-stricken joint smoking Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who swears Auntie was being mysteriously treated by Raimunda’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura)–which seems to be not possible since she’s dead. But as it turns out Raimunda’s mother didn’t die in the fire, but Agustina’s mother, the only hippie at the time in the community, who was having an affair with Raimunda’s dad, did.

This big cleavage and big-assed Raimunda gal can sure cope when trouble comes, as she soon finds a way to solve just about everything in her tragic life including her money woes by illegally opening up the abandoned restaurant after making a deal to cater meals for an entire movie crew of thirty who are shooting a film in the area and by eventually burying her turkey hubby in the woods near a river with the help of her local heavy set prostitute neighbor.

It’s a charming movie, even with the murder, that touches the heart as it pays homage to the handful of long suffering women. All their performances are first-rate. Even Cruz, who was miscast in a number of Hollywood blockbuster duds, seems much looser here, less pretentious and easier to watch.

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