- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Volver: a Spanish verb meaning “to return,” used in reference to people returning, not things. Also: Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s dazzling new film, a cinematic triumph recognized in the past week by two Golden Globe and 14 Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars) nominations.

“Volver” is, in several ways, a literal return for Mr. Almodovar. To film the project, he revisited his homeland, La Mancha, Spain, and hired several wonderful leading ladies with whom he has worked over the years (Carmen Maura, Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas). The roles these dynamic women fill harken back to some of Mr. Almodovar’s previous works (1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” for example) that have shown his adeptness at developing strong female characters.

Also, returning forms the thematic backbone of “Volver.” Mr. Almodovar employs a fluid notion of reality here — characters can come back from the grave or attain a sort of immortality. In his notes about the movie, the writer-director explains that this is, in part, an homage to the way in which Manchegans keep the dead in their daily lives. However, the device is also reminiscent of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s delightful magical realism, where somehow the storyteller makes the unbelievable seem just as vivid and tangible as the truth. And much more fun.

The story’s main plotline follows adult sisters Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas). Their parents, we’re told, perished years ago in a fire; yet, following the death of an aunt, the siblings’ deceased mother (Carmen Maura) appears to Sole.

While Sole grapples with her sanity, Raimunda has come home to find her deadbeat boyfriend in a bloody heap on the kitchen floor and her teenage daughter almost catatonic. (Yes, Miss Cruz does look young to have a teenage daughter, but the gravitas the actress brings to the role accumulates over time, making her more convincing as time elapses.)

Unlike the audience, Raimunda doesn’t know that her scummy lover has long had designs on her progeny, the pursuit of which led to his demise. Now both sisters have skeletons in their closets, which they’ll try to hide from each other as long as possible.

Sole literally lets her mother’s ghost come live and work with her. She runs an illegal hair salon out of her home and passes off her strange guest as a hapless Russian immigrant whom she has adopted. As you can guess, Mr. Almodovar mines the scenario for many laughs.

Meanwhile, Raimunda stashes her boyfriend’s corpse in the freezer at a neighbor’s vacant restaurant. Though she eventually succeeds in burying her secret, Sole’s surfaces, with some unexpected consequences — and explanations.

Comprising equal parts heartfelt drama, whimsical humor and wonderful storytelling, “Volver” serves as a fine vehicle for Miss Cruz, clad throughout the film in bright, mismatched patterns and with her ebony hair clipped loosely atop her head. Like her relaxed dress, the actress exudes a graceful ease and natural quality that show she’s in her element; Mr. Almodovar’s scripts, adoring cameras and the Spanish tongue seem to suit her far better than her English-language endeavors.

***

TITLE: “Volver”

RATING: R (Morbidity, mild violence and adult themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.

com/volver/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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