Reviewed by: Chris

The minute Volver opens we know we're in for a strange ride. A rural cemetery is a hive of activity - women cheerily cleaning the headstones with almost festive enthusiasm. It could be a song and dance number, though we observe that the music is overlaid, the women aren't actually singing and, on closer inspection, the scene is strangely normal - if a little unusual. As Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), Sole and young Paula depart the gates, we are swept along into a fast moving story that cuts through moral boundaries with an unerring surety.

This film is mostly about women: girls sticking together across generations; separations and misunderstandings; bonding and being able to rely on each other. But, this being an Almodóvar story, don't expect a cosy little tale where people follow a yellow brick road to happiness. Paula's father ogles then tries to rape her and gets himself accidentally murdered; more and more dirty linen gradually falls out of the cupboard; and an exceedingly realistic ghost (played by Carmen Maura from Almodóvar's early success, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown) provides a constant element of unpredictability.

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It is the first time Almodóvar has included a supernatural theme and he handles it with great panache. Comedic elements are added not just by hiding the ghost under the bed, but by a scintillating script which includes gems from a quick-thinking Raimunda. "Are you hurt?" asks an ex-boss solicitously (there is blood on Penélope Cruz's neck.) "No," she answers gaily, "women's troubles," although we know he has disturbed her in the process of disposing of a dead body.

Cruz's performance here is undoubtedly one of the high points of her career. She radiates from centre stage, bouncing between being a wounded woman who puts on a dazzlingly brave face and a dazzling screen icon as she slips into character when wooed by the local film crew for whom she is preparing lunch.

Almodóvar also takes an occasional outing from verité to show off cinematic artistry, with an unexpected overhead shot as Sole is surrounded by mourners, framing Cruz photogenically with mint leaves and cocktails, or zooming in to make the act of chopping red peppers a work of art that you almost want to frame and put on the wall. Diversions are provided by moments of flamenco guitar (to which Cruz lip-synchs beautifully), the simple beauty of the old Spanish streets, and the hilarious interrogation by the friendly whore who doesn't know what Raimunda wants her to do (assuming it must be something sexual when it's not, although perhaps even more nefarious).

The plot develops with such dizzying speed you never know what's going to happen next, but as Almodóvar approaches his finale he ties everything up with Hitchcock-like revelations. Volver takes the fantastic and makes it seem not only believable but matter-of-fact. It is colourful, vivacious, and by turns full of warm comedy and deep, genuine emotion. If you only see one subtitled movie this year, you could do much worse than Volver.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A dead woman returns home in spirit to comfort her daughters.
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Symon Parsons ****

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Writer: Pedro Almodóvar

Starring: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas

Year: 2006

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain


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