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Volver is intriguing to watch as it simmers in dramedy, but a measly three stars on the Pedro Almodovar scale is, in fact, a downgrade.


For one family whose true survivors are all women, Madrid's stiff "east wind" blows around much more than just leaves. Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is just trying to make ends meet for her young daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), and her deadbeat husband (Antonio de la Torre), who tells Paula during a moment of lust that he is not her real father. Raimunda's sister, Sole (Lola Duenas), is a hairdresser who tends to walk in the shadow of her older sister. They both, however, walk in the shadow of their deceased mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), with whom Raimunda had unfinished business. Irene supposedly died in a fire a few years ago, but the sisters' neighbor, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), claims otherwise, saying that their mother has returned to care for an ailing aunt (Chus Lampreave). Augustina, who's terminally ill, has a family-history mystery of her own that involves the fire and Irene. She begs and pleads with Raimunda to help her get to the bottom of the matter before she dies, but in due time all questions will be answered by an unexpected visitor.


Cruz has long been able to sustain the rare successful bilingual movie career, and never has it been more apparent why than in Volver: her looks and acting keep one-upping each other. Her hypnotizing curvaceous beauty is accentuated by director Pedro Almodovar (even though it doesn't need to be)--who often cites the actress as his muse--but it's her acting that shines maybe more than ever in her career, a career whose quality is--literally--foreign to most of her American fans. In the film's most mesmerizing and moving sequence, Cruz sings the song "Volver" ("Coming Back") to a crowded restaurant. That "restaurant" will likely be millions of viewers worldwide when, come February, it's used as her Oscar-nomination reel. Frequent 1980s Almodovar collaborator and long-time actress Maura makes her relatively few scenes count. As the matriarch of the family and movie, she provides the sharpest poignancy and comedy in this undeniable dramedy. For veteran actress Duenas, who last worked with Almodovar on 2002's Talk to Her, the tone is different but no less affecting, and she more than holds her own against the star and the stalwart.


Those anticipating having their minds bent by Volver might be disappointed to leave the theater with a warm heart instead. But in true Almodovar fashion, even that makes you think, and ultimately you'll come to appreciate his departure from gi-normous twists and altogether seedier fare. Even with Volver's relative tameness by comparison, he still exhibits the perfect transitions between supernaturalism and reality. Some directors have no idea how to intertwine the two and it shows, but Almodovar, his brain clearly consumed by such weighty subject matter (and his long history of directing and writing such themes to prove it), can never be charged with ambiguity. His brain is also clearly occupied by strong-willed women who have come and gone throughout his life, as seen in many of his films, to which he pays tribute in his latest offering. Which doesn't make for anything especially urgent, but it's still beautiful to watch and listen to--and even if only because you spend the whole movie expecting to be fooled, it has its thrills.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.