3½ stars (out of four)
The pleasures of the new Pedro Almodovar film "Volver," and they are many, have less to do with deep wells of feeling than they do with mastery of craft and a magnificent sort of artifice. It's odd, since writer-director Almodovar's characters are nothing but feelings, whether repressed or exploded. But the director establishes a very sly degree of stylization here. The way he and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, light, frame and fabulize their stars, it's like a mash note to womanhood.
To some, this swank comic melodrama set in Madrid and the windblown La Mancha region (where Almodovar spent his earliest years) represents the continuing domestication of a former wild hare. Others will see it as part of maturing director's embrace of classicism, if undercut by a hint of stodginess, even with all the vibrant color schemes. The picture hasn't a single rough edge. Expositionally it's on the knotty side. Yet it's so well acted and directorially assured, "Volver" ("Coming Back") cancels out its own drawbacks as it glides along.
The chief glider is Penelope Cruz, who has been recast as Anna Magnani/Sophia Loren salt-of-the-earth material. In a padded bottom and blouses that call out "Yoo-hoo!", she plays Raimunda, whose loutish husband turns his slovenly attentions to their teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) and pays for it with a knife to the gullet.
This happens early on. "Volver" has plenty more on its plate. In the La Mancha village where Raimunda grew up with her sister Sole (Lola Duenas), aged Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) is dying. She does, however, appear to be getting some help from someone. Family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) reports that the townsfolk speak of the appearance of a ghost. The ghost is that of Raimunda's deceased mother (Carmen Maura), who has some unfinished business to resolve, having to do with a long-ago fire and some highly flammable family secrets.
From one angle, as with most earlier Almodovar pictures rough or smooth, the story lines are deadly serious. From another, it's all part of the joyous fiesta called life. Part of the joke here is that Raimunda's own impediment of a spouse is dispatched early and quite easily. Raimunda handles everything with aplomb, including taking over a dormant restaurant and turning it into a catering service for a visiting film crew. A hint of a romance emerges as one of the crewmen makes eyes at Raimunda, but "Volver" has no interest in present-day romance (or its male characters). It's all about the past bleeding into the present, and sparkly-eyed women rolling with adversity.
Everyone's eyes in this film sparkle, literally. It's pure satisfaction watching Cruz (who, as this film reminds you, can really let 'er rip in her native language) mixing it up with the wonderful Duenas, as well as the blissfully matter-of-fact Portillo. The surprise is Maura, who has not worked with Almodovar since 1988's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Her role here lacks glamor to a conspicuous degree, and it's too bad both the actress and the part haven't a bit more to do. But as she proved in her Almodovar heyday, Maura's a soulful and unusually honest farceur, and a fine actress in any genre.
You always get more than one genre with this filmmaker. "Volver" draws upon all sorts of influences -- a little Hitchcock, a little Douglas Sirk, a little telenovela -- but from those sources Almodovar and his collaborators, both on screen and behind the camera, make an improbably organic whole. Similarly, the way composer Alberto Iglesias finesses the film's antic and serious impulses is remarkable. Cruz may be the central figure in "Volver," but she's hardly the whole show.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar; cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine; edited by Jose Salcedo; art direction by Salvador Parra; music by Alberto Iglesias; produced by Esther Garcia. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Wednesday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (for some sexual content and language).
Raimunda - Penelope Cruz
Grandmother Irene - Carmen Maura
Sole - Lola Duenas
Agustina - Blanca Portillo
Paula - Yohana Cobo