A richly evocative return to his childhood roots, Pedro Almodovar's 16th feature "Volver" signals a new, low-frills departure for a helmer whose recent work has been as much about style as substance; pic is cinematographically and dramatically more contained and satisfyingly unflashy. Peopled with superbly drawn, attractive characters smoothly integrated into a well-turned, low-tricks plotline, "Volver" may rep Almodovar's most conventional piece to date, but it is also his most reflective, a subdued, sometimes intense and often comic homecoming that celebrates the pueblo and people that shaped his imagination.
Spanish crix have responded favorably to the helmer's most explicitly domestic item since the 1980's, and the pic is studded with enough standard Almodovar moments to keep his legion of offshore arthouse fans happy, though it is unlikely to break down any new doors.
The visually memorable scene over the opening credits shows dozens of women furiously scrubbing the graves of their deceased, establishing the influence of the dead over the living as the key theme.
One of the women is Raimunda (Penelope Cruz in her finest perf to date), a cleaner at Madrid airport; she has a daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), of whom her couch potato husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) may or may not be the father.
Like her hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Duenas), Raimunda now lives in the capital, having left the La Mancha pueblo where they were brought up -- a typically Spanish town where women live long and men die young.
The sisters' mother, Irene (Carmen Maura) died in a fire a few years previously, along with their father; Irene's elderly, ailing sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) still lives in the pueblo, where she is looked after by Agustina (Blanca Portillo), whose own mother mysteriously disappeared on the day of the fire.
One evening, Raimunda finds younger sis wandering the streets in a daze, and discovers that the girl has stabbed Paco to death after he tried to abuse her. Raimunda agrees to take responsibility for the death and cleans up the mess.
At a subsequent wake for Aunt Paula, who has suddenly died, Agustina confides that the pueblo believes Irene's ghost has returned and was taking care of her sister during her final days.
Sure enough, one afternoon back in Aunt Paula's house, Sole watches as the wild-haired Irene descends the stairs and confronts her. Before too long, following some well-played farce, Irene is living with Sole and helping out with the hairdressing, pretending to be a Russian immigrant and hiding under the bed whenever anyone calls.
Pic harnesses styles and moods from different phases in the Almodovar oeuvre: the bleakly hilarious comic realism of "What Have I Done to Deserve This"; the bucolic melodrama of "The Flower of My Secret"; the celebration of womanhood that has been more or less a constant.
Many Almodovar stylistic hallmarks are present -- the stand-alone song, the refs to the mindless cruelty of reality TV and the homage to classic film (in this case to Visconti's "Bellissima"), the cameo by his producer bro. Such calling-card moments that are not always in the best service of the particular story he has to tell, but here they arise seamlessly from the action.
What you do not get is a single transsexual or, even more surprisingly, any love story. These women, a curious combination of the pragmatic and the superstitious, inhabit a world in which men are either surplus or dead. The supernatural air, new to Almodovar, that permeates certain scenes is credibly filtered through character psychology; one memorable scene has Sole glimpsing what briefly seems to be all the dead men of the town.
Plotting, built around a couple of major skeletons leaping from the family closet, is relatively straightforward. The script carefully, but not always unobtrusively, gets everything into place early on, meaning the pic is free of the coups de theatre that have sometimes damaged Almodovar's storytelling. Many of the pleasures derive from the often laugh-aloud dialogue. Occasional moments of clunky implausibility look strangely amateurish in this slick context.
Casting is faultless, with Duenas ("The Sea Inside") relishing her role as the small, squirrelish Sole, and the reliable Maura keeping a potentially awkward, ambiguous role tightly pegged to the real. (Local press has made much of the Almodovar/Maura reunion following their well publicized bust-up several years back.)
But this is Cruz's pic. Aided by an apparent set of prosthetic buttocks that give her a sassy swagger, and evidently inspired by the beautiful housewives of Italian neorealism, she works Raimunda up into a powerfully engaging and credible figure, independent and aware of life's theatricality, but also sensitive, insecure and tearful. The camera is head over heels in love with her throughout.
Lensing by Jose Luis Alcaine abandons Almodovar's standard pop aesthetic for more subdued tones. Flashes of brightness pop out (Raimunda's red dress, the sister's red car, Cruz's eyes) from a toned-down background, though Alcaine still ekes the visual poetry from a patch of urban wasteland. Interiors are richly textured, right down to the grain of the wood, but the occasional use of look-at-me camera angles seems unnecessary.
Art direction by Salvador Parra deserves a mention for its visual faithfulness to the region's courtyards and cluttered interiors, as well as to the appalling tracksuits and knee-high tights Spaniards don in the comfort of their own homes.
Alberto Iglesias' score is attractively subdued orchestral fare, over-employed in a couple of scenes. The standalone musical item is a beautifully lip-synced version of a moving tango classic, "Volver," interpreted by flamenco star Estrella Morente. Pic world-preemed March 10 in a special showing in a town not far from Almodovar's birthplace.
Camera (color, widescreen), Jose Luis Alcaine; editor, Jose Salcedo; music, Alberto Iglesias; art director, Salvador Parra; sound (Dolby Digital), Miguel Rejas. Reviewed at Yelmo Cineplex Ideal, Madrid, March 16, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 111 MIN.