Volver 

(R) Four stars

Pedro Almodóvar’s 16th film is a colorful, invigorating story about the trials of a group of women in Spain. “Volver” means “to return” and the movie deals with returns, including one from beyond the grave. The production also marks a return by the maker of Bad Education and Talk to Her to the less flashy style of his earlier works.

Bear in mind that I simply said less flashy. Volver still contains the melodrama, humor and casual outrageousness that fans expect from an Almodóvar creation.

The star of the show is Penélope Cruz, who is a much stronger and more appealing performer when speaking her native Spanish. If you’ve dismissed her as a performer because she came off as awkward, clueless, flighty or abrasive in some English language movie, do yourself a favor and check her out here.

Almodóvar is well-known for writing meaty roles for women and he has crafted several juicy ones here. There are men in the story, but the focus remains firmly on the interactions of the women. At first their individual dramas seem random, but everything eventually comes together.

Cruz plays Raimunda, wife of Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and mother of Paula (Yohana Cobo). Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) long ago left the La Mancha pueblo of their youth for the larger possibilities of the capital city of Madrid. Raimunda now works as a cleaner at the airport and Sole is a hairdresser.

The sisters lost their parents a few years earlier in a fire. Their aging, ailing Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) still lives in the pueblo, where she is cared for by Agustina (Blanca Portillo), whose mother disappeared on the day of the fire.

Not soapy enough for you? Don’t worry, there’s more. SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVEALS SOME PLOT POINTS. I SUGGEST YOU READ ON ANYWAY: Young Paula stabs Paco to death after the thug tries to rape her and Raimunda elects to cover the crime and dispose of the body. Meanwhile, Aunt Paula dies and at the wake, Agustina expresses her belief that the ghost of the girls’ mother Irene recently returned to the pueblo to help care for her dying sister.

Agustina isn’t crazy. Irene (Carmen Maura, working with Almodóvar for the first time in many years) is indeed back and she soon establishes herself as the earthiest ghost in cinematic history. Poor, hapless Sole is the first sister to encounter her. After the initial freak out, Irene ends up staying with Sole and assisting her with the hairdressing, passing herself off as a Russian immigrant. END SPOILERS.

If that seems convoluted as hell and more than a little bit silly (I’m assuming you ignored the spoiler alert), all I can tell you is that it plays out quite nicely. Almodóvar writes his characters with such affection and clarity that they ring true even in the most outlandish situations. Of course, it doesn’t’t hurt to have a grand cast. Penélope Cruz anchors the movie, but the rest of the players are also memorable, particularly Carmen Maura, who takes a role that sounds ridiculous on paper (did I mention that her character’s distinctive and overpowering flatulence becomes a plot point?) and makes it work.

Pedro Almodóvar creates weird, wonderful movies. Grading on a curve, Volver is one of his most mainstream. Knockout acting, wonderfully realized locales, impressive camerawork and a solid score, tragedy, intrigue, humor, a celebration of women — it all adds up to one of the best films of 2006.

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