The first thing you notice is breasts. Most particularly those belonging to Penelope Cruz, who as Raimunda is done up like Sophia Loren in her prime -- crisp, dark eyeliner, hair piled high, dresses cut low, cleavage up and out. I think my favorite shot in the film is of Raimunda doing the dishes. Photographed from above, her cleavage jiggles while she furiously scrubs a large knife. (Careful, you might put an eye out!) The shot is quintessential Almodovar, combining the everyday details of domestic life with a hyper-feminine sexuality and the threat of violence. It's subtle and funny, emblematic of Almodovar's current approach to filmmaking, which is more casual, more gestural and less mad-cap than in some of his earlier films (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Law of Desire or Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down).
In Almodovar's oeuvre, Volver lies somewhere between those classics and some of his more recent, less antic films (The Flower of My Secret, Talk to Her), but there is always a little mania present in his work -- a body to dispose of, a debt to be paid and a character whose world view is just skewed enough to insure that the score will be settled in style.
The second thing you notice in an Almodovar film is the color. It is always saturated and reminds one of classic Hollywood Hitchcock -- deep red blood pooling serenely over a pale blue floor. As Raimunda goes to work cleaning up her husband's dead body, she tracks blood all over the kitchen floor with the padded soles of her work shoes -- she can never rest, there is always woman's work to do. And the work is handily undertaken in the no-nonsense way that a working woman would, everything clean and ultimately arriving in its rightful place.
Volver means "Coming Back," which throughout the course of the film applies to a number of scenarios. Raimunda and her sister Sole return to their hometown in La Mancha (where the "East wind drives people crazy") to visit their ailing aunt Paula and to clean their mother's grave. Carmen Maura returns to Almodovar's filmic universe as the ghost of Irene, Sole and Raimunda's mother who died in a fire (alongside her husband) a few years back. The ghost has spent the last few years looking after her sister Paula, but after Paula's death, she stows away in the trunk of Sole's car, hitching a ride to Madrid to haunt her two daughters and take care of some unfinished business. In Volver, whatever path you have taken, whatever may have gone wrong in your life, there is always a way to return, to make amends and do the right thing -- unless you are a bad man, in which case you will be dispatched early in the film, never to be heard from again.
Whenever I see an Almodovar film, I go into a bit of a coma. In the hands of a master, it is much easier to let go, not to question, to follow the internal logic of the film wherever it might lead. Volver is no different. Close attention is paid to the design of the film -- each shot is carefully crafted, gorgeous colors combined, camera moves choreographed to perfection.
Volver is populated with characters that have been pushed to the edge but haven't lost faith. These women have a tendency to blurt outrageous truths bluntly and when least expected. There is no time and little patience for pussyfooting. They also have a proclivity for acting decisively. You can see them make up their minds and commit whole-heartedly to a course of action, however rash or outlandish. After all, when the ghost of your dead mother asks you for a new haircut and dye job, what else can you do but get to work?
Volver opens in the Bay Area November 22, 2006.
Get theaters and showtimes (at sfgate.com)