Sisterly spirit

Pedro Almodóvar returns with another oddball slice of life

TODO SOBRE MI MADRE Penélope Cruz spends some time with Yohana Cobo in Volver.

TODO SOBRE MI MADRE Penélope Cruz spends some time with Yohana Cobo in Volver.

Volver Starring Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura. Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Rated 4.0

The frisky nonchalance of Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver is even more to the point than it may at first seem to be.

Reduced to mere plot summary, this sidelong comedy-drama sounds like an over-the-top soap opera rife with doom-laden melodrama. After all, its two hours of offhanded storytelling includes a homicide and subsequent cover-up, two deaths by fire (offscreen) and two by more or less natural causes, a convoluted pattern of incestuous relationships, two semi-clandestine business operations, a host of shocking family secrets, and one persistent and deceptively wacky “ghost.”

There’s probably enough in all that for a season-long mini-series, but Almodóvar packs it all into two hours of ostensibly bright, flashy entertainment on the big screen. While melodramatic extremes are a familiar ingredient in Almodóvar’s movies (All About My Mother, Bad Education, etc.), here they get tossed off in a way that draws the characters’ rambunctious earthy resilience and durability into the foreground.

The characters in this case are all women—two somewhat estranged sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas); their relentlessly vital mother, Irene (Carmen Maura); Raimunda’s teen-aged daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo); plus ceaselessly loyal friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), aging Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), and neighboring hooker Regina (María Isabel Díaz). Each of them seems possessed, however variously, with a multi-generational spirit of sisterly survival.

In Volver that sisterly spirit, simultaneously blithe and robust, takes darkly comic form—high spirits whose surprising durability is reflected in both deadpan comedy and a tacit determination to flourish in the face of grim and sometimes lethal realities.

Cruz’s Oscar nomination is deserved, but the Cannes Film Festival’s gesture—giving its Best Actress award to the entire female cast—is closer to the heart of the matter: Cruz’s spectacular channeling of Sophia Loren-like power is neatly complemented by Maura’s daftly undaunted calm, and Dueñas’ Sole is an on-going wonder of comic-neurotic understatement.