The Will Rogers of international cinema, Spain's Pedro Almodóvar never met a woman he didn't like, especially if she was 1) a prostitute, 2) a drag queen, 3) a transsexual or 4) a lesbian nun with child. And in Volver, as in so many of his previous films, women inhabit a room of their own, a world apart. Men are around, stirring up trouble and inflaming passion, but most of them are glorified nuisances, bodies to be disposed of. Almodóvar opens the film with a tracking shot across a village cemetery in the La Mancha region where he grew up, and it seems as if every single gravestone is being tended to by a merry widow. Are they glad to be rid of their husbands? Did they help put them there? Can they now rest in peace?
We're soon introduced to Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a working-class woman with the beauty of Sophia Loren and the indomitable spirit of Anna Magnani, two actresses who are undoubtedly in Almodóvar's personal pantheon. Cruz seems a lot more comfortable in her native tongue, and if she doesn't quite match Magnani's earthiness, she more than lives up to the prosthetic booty that's been attached to her backside. Raimunda's a born survivor, and when she comes home one night to a dead husband lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood, she promptly cleans up the mess and sticks the body in a freezer. It seems that her daughter, Sole (Lola Dueñas), didn't want to go from daddy's little girl to daddy's little woman.
As harrowing as this turn of events might be in somebody else's film, here it's treated like more of the same, which apparently it is. While trying to figure out how to get her ex-husband to his final resting place, Raimunda learns that her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), has returned from the grave to apologize for Raimunda's own difficult childhood. But don't expect the whole rotting-flesh, spooky-voice treatment. Irene looks more like a bag lady than a ghost. And when she doesn't want someone to see her, she hides under the bed. When it comes to the family's long history of secrets and lies, Irene knows where all the bodies are buried. And Maura, who had a long falling-out with Almodóvar, returns in style, finding nuggets of humor amidst the pathos.
Almodóvar has called Volver "a meeting of Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace," by which he appears to mean that it combines elements of a domestic drama with elements of a horror-comedy. There's some Sirkian melodrama in there, some Hitchcockian thriller, but the tone is surprisingly matter-of-fact for a movie that includes visitations from beyond the grave. Hence, "volver," Spanish for "return," which may also refer to Almodóvar's return to his roots in the casually superstitious village life of La Mancha. Nobody looks like she's seen a ghost in Volver, even when she's staring right at one, and that's one source of the movie's humor. But it's also a clue to the world these women inhabit; dead or alive, they're on the same wavelength.
And they're held together by the ties that bind. When they meet or part, they exchange pecks on the cheek, the sound of which Almodóvar has amplified so that it sounds like the nonverbal communication of some exotic species. Volver isn't Almodóvar working at the top of his game. The comedy's a little flat, and so is the drama. (And Cruz, the Spanish Julia Roberts, doesn't have the talent to match that mouth full of teeth.) But the movie wins you over with its utopian vision of a matrilineal support group, the world of women as a refuge from the world of men. It would be easy to assume that those women in the movie's opening shot are sprucing up the gravesites for their dead husbands' benefit. Wrong. To quote Aretha Franklin, another soul survivor: "Sisters are doin' it for themselves."