The ubiquitous Pedro Almodóvar adopts Penelope Cruz as his latest muse for his 16th film. In Volver, Cruz leads a predominantly female cast in a cross-generational story about the culture of death in Almodóvar's native region of La Mancha, Spain.
The movie opens in a wind-swept cemetery crowded with women brushing dirt from the headstones of their dead relatives. They are actively connected to the same soil in which they themselves are destined to be buried. One of the film's crucial themes contends that returning to a birthplace means making peace with ghosts both real and imagined.
Almodovar conveys this idea by weaving together a complex story populated by phantasms of all sorts. Raimunda (Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) believe their parents perished together in a fire. But neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo) points out that her own mother disappeared on the same day. Meanwhile, someone has been taking care of senile Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). The entire pueblo believes it's the ghost of Irene, Raimunda and Sole's dead mother. Played by Carmen Maura, Irene slowly reveals herself to both daughters. Granddaughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) is also in on the secret. And she's got one of her own. She's killed a man: Raimunda's husband, who Paula mistakenly believes is her father.
Raimunda inherits from her daughter the challenge of disposing of her husband's corpse, and uses this task as an excuse to change jobs. After depositing the body in an empty restaurant freezer, Raimunda agrees to cater lunch for a film crew that's shooting a movie nearby. The homey atmosphere she creates as a chef provides impetus for the film's musical centerpiece, in which she serenades her dinner guests with the film's title song "Volver," which translates as "to return."
Almodóvar presents his hometown of La Mancha as a place where men die young and women live on to sort out their personal relationships, as well as their shared histories, which are clouded with lies. As the deceased mother to Raimunda and Sole, Irene's ghost has ostensibly returned to open a dialogue about the facts surrounding her death as they connect to her late husband's infidelities, which are much more shocking than the tone of the movie would forecast.
There are surprises here that tilt at the windmills of La Mancha as metaphors for the lasting effects of the cruelty that men do to their own families. But Almodóvar's resilient women are no Quixotes. They rise above their traumatic pasts to serve one another and their community.
For her beautifully sustained performance Penelope Cruz shared this year's Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress with her co-stars Yohana Cobo, Lola Duenas, Chus Lampreave, Carmen Maura and Blanca Portillo. And deservedly so - they are sublime.