Return to Paradise

Dir. Pedro Almodóvar; writ. Pedro Almodóvar; feat. Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo (R)

Maybe it’s cinematic sacrilege to admit I’ve never desired ownership of a Pedro Almodóvar movie, because the goodness (and sometimes disconcertion) sticks in a way that’s uncanny and magical. For me, the occasional rental suffices; or did, until I screened Volver and felt decidedly otherwise. That’ll teach me to say never.

Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) smiles vacantly as visions of sugarplums dance in her head.

Volver undoubtedly embodies the Almodóvar standard of excellence, but it exudes a refreshing lightness (in spite of its subject matter) that acts as a post-Bad Education chamomile tea, with umbrella. And yet, the forwardly feminine Volver is simultaneously a curiously fitting companion to Bad Education — a primarily male narrative — in that they both explore the reverberations of sexual abuse by a paternal figure (sins of the father, you might say) in the director’s signature suspended-judgment fashion.  

The colorful film centers on Raimunda (Cruz), an overworked mother of one (two, if you count her deadbeat husband) living in Madrid. Raimunda is not only holding down multiple jobs, she’s busy maintaining relationships with her teenage daughter Paula, her sister Sole, an elderly aunt, and a cousin with cancer. This doesn’t leave her with much time or energy to indulge the aforementioned deadbeat husband, Paco, who decides to prey on Paula (and pays the bloody consequences). (Oh, don’t look at me like that, I didn’t give that much away.)

Meanwhile, Sole faces an unusual consequence for leaving her vehicle’s hatchback open and unattended for more than a moment: The ghost of their mother hops in (really) and follows her home. While there, she helps Sole run a salon and generally complicates things. How about that for quirky? I’m happy to report that’s just the beginning: Watch for more Almodóvarisms. For example, as Raimunda cleans her whipped-out, stabbed-dead husband off the kitchen floor, notice that Paco’s phallus receives the same sort of masterfully-implied-but-never-in-the-frame treatment as the snake in Talk to Her. Interesting.

As always, Almodóvar’s work rides the fence when it comes to the objectification of women. But I like the naked intent of particular shots, celebrating T&A so matter-of-factly, so free of guilt that they confound the American convention of building a scenario of feigned importance around cleavage (when everybody knows it’s only about cleavage). In Volver, cleavage is about cleavage, and that’s all right with me. Almodóvar’s female characters are whole, and voluptuousness is a part of that — especially for Raimunda as a mother-earth-goddessy figure.

On that topic, as much as I’d love to speak ill of anyone who starred in Sahara (William H. Macy, why did you have to make me love you?) — or any former lovers of Tom Cruise, for that matter — Cruz inarguably gives an Oscar-worthy performance in Volver. She has a range here not many actors are capable of, and Volver thrives on the believability of her character’s dubiousness, both hardened to and saddened by the death of her lazy, repulsive husband. (Almodóvar might not judge, but I do.)

Raimunda is the kind of modern-movie semi-superheroine that, all hard knocks aside, might dwell in an imagined, bold-hued Europe parallel to Amelie Poulain’s. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Owning the DVD, alas, is as close as most of us will get. 

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