In Volver, the 57-year-old Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's 16th film, his characters' eyes perpetually brim over with tears. There is a lot of love, tenderness, sadness, regret and buried feeling, once again confirming Almodóvar as a remarkably agile melodrama queen. He conveys the exquisite torment of unresolved conflicts, unsatisfied desires and all the things unspoken in his family of women.
Aided and abetted by a cast of steel magnolias, Almodóvar makes feeling tactile and solid, in the way two sisters still relish the smell of their mother, years after her passing, clinging to their aunt's house. Another devoted daughter keeps a collection of plastic costume jewelry as a shrine to her long-gone hippie mother.
From Juan Gatti's closing credits of graphic 1950s flowers exploding in bloom to the heart-melting and earthy femininity of star Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar's tribute to mother love is overflowing with the anguish and ecstasy of life. Men barely register. Like moths, they flail against the beguiling, powerful flame of womanhood, but just end up burning their wings -- or dead.
Volver is Pedro Almodóvar's Mildred Pierce or Imitation of Life -- a women's film about the fierce, tortured bonds between mothers and daughters, and women as caretakers of the culture's soul. They're the ones cooking the food, tending the graves and caring for the dying. For Almodóvar, real women are drag queen enough -- fierce, living large -- and he gives free reign for their outrageous, glamorous tendencies.
Volver opens with Raimunda (Cruz), overseen by sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), devotedly tending the grave where her dead parents lie. It is a tradition in the Spanish village of La Mancha (Almodovar's real-life hometown) to tend these temples of the dead, and the graveyard is buzzing with widows in black and dutiful daughters fretting over their family plots.
"Volver" means "coming back," and it's a literal return for Raimunda to her village past; it's also a plea from Almodóvar for some of the familial connections and artfulness lost in our frantic media age.
A heroine modeled on the sensual earth-mothers of Italian neorealist cinema, the fetching Cruz recalls the protective, loving and lovely Sophia Loren of Two Women or the salt-of-the-earth über-dames played by Anna Magnani.
Back at her cramped Madrid apartment, Raimunda is overwhelmed with worry over her elderly, helpless aunt still living in the village, and her own daughter, who is being lasciviously eyed by her unemployed, lay-about husband. The past comes back quite literally to haunt Volver -- borne on La Mancha's mystical winds -- in the form of a dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura) who appears to Sole to try and forge some reconciliation with her estranged daughter Raimunda.
As with so much melodrama that fetishizes death, separation and the complicated emotional bonds between family members, Volver is a film of emotional waters barely held back by buckling levies. As usual, Almodóvar can't help but inject a degree of insane levity in its own way steeped in the pleasures of being alive. There are vinegary, back-sassing old ladies, chubby hookers busting out of their hot pants, farting ghosts and bodies stuffed into restaurant deep freezers.
It is no surprise that Raimunda hates television, including a popular, true-confessions TV show where the guests' most intimate feelings are vomited up for entertainment. For Almodóvar, there is a distinction between simplistic entertainment and eternal art. An inherently filmic creature, Raimunda resides in this more soulful and artful world.
In Volver, women are more attuned to another, deeper way of life, connected to village traditions and resistant to the crass distractions of a world obsessed by gut-spilling TV shows and the "necessities" of cable TV and cell phones. Volver is a plea for real connections -- for family, for a more elemental way of life -- in a world consumed by these false, deceptive, technological ones.