City Paper is not for tourists
Death is alternately indomitable or inconclusive in Volver, an earnestly preposterous melodrama brought to you by Pedro Almodóvar and the color red. As this is another of the campy Spanish filmmaker’s celebrations of women, the central character who stays stiff is male, while the one who revives is female. The story opens at a cemetery, where a jaunty song accompanies Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) as she washes her parents’ headstone. Joining her are sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), as well their friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). Agustina’s mother may be dead, but officially she’s only missing and so has no grave. This is a matter of great concern to Agustina and of significance to Almodóvar’s elaborate plot. But first there’s the matter of Paco (Antonio de la Torre), Raimunda’s husband and Paula’s putative father. Fatally stabbed in an agitated moment, Paco is stashed temporarily in the family’s freezer. He deserves a proper burial, too, but Raimunda has other pressing issues: the demise of doddering Aunt Paula, an offer to cater meals for a visiting movie crew, and repeated sightings of the specter of her late mother (an extravagantly disheveled Carmen Maura). It seems that Mom is back for good, although viewers who can follow the tangled backstory may suspect that she never went away. Volver (“to return”) is named for a ballad Raimunda sings at the crew’s wrap party, in which she expresses her fear of the past’s return. Yet despite a tale that involves incest, murder, and ghosts, there’s nothing to fear in this movie, which balances elegantly but uninvolvingly between tragedy and spoof. Even when it veers toward farce, as in scenes involving flatulence or tell-all TV shows, the film is too mannered to elicit the guffaws of the director’s early work. A fine showcase for Cruz’s élan and cleavage, as well as the production crew’s design and color schemes, Volver achieves a hollow perfection. It’s no-muss Almodóvar, in which guilt and pain are mopped up as easily as Paco’s blood.