Aside the melancholy that the title of the film suggests, Volver is a trip to the past for Almodóvar, to La Mancha, the place that inspired his wanton dreams. He sets the scene in that region as a means to get mixed up in the feminine universe, much as he has been doing for most of his directing career. With the exception of Ingmar Bergman’s lucid skill at revealing the soul of women in many of his films, no other director comes close to Almodóvar in depiction of women—in his case, the brave, tenacious, strong, and resilient madrazas of Spain.
In what may be considered the most direct and least complicated film of his career, the liveliness of the text employed in his customary excellent script pushes Almodovar to use a tidy and precise narration with well-articulated dialogue, once again confirming his masterly storytelling ability. Basically, the essential theme of Volver can be summed up in the mother-daughter relationship that flourishes throughout three generations and in which an enigmatic past will ultimately influence the fate of the characters; all this is done in an ambiance of hidden truths, incestuous relationships, unimaginable crimes, and miraculous appearances that create an accomplished aura of mystery.
The film continuously emphasizes the influence of its author’s previous work; however, rather than diminishing the story, the hints at cinematic devices previously used permit the viewer to better grasp and enjoy what can be seen on the big screen. Both the protagonists of The Flower of My Secret (La Flor de mi Secreto) and Volver return to the towns of their childhood, though for different reasons. As in Live Flesh (Carne Trémula), the living in Volver interact with the dead during a trip, a kind of turning back the clock to past events. And whereas All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi Madre) reflects a mother’s pain over her son’s death, Volver relates the story of a woman whose love for her progeny causes her to return to the past to not only fix up pending matters with her daughter but also with her granddaughter. Finally, in a stirring scene, Almodóvar grabs a clip from Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima and uses it to great effect. Here, the unforgettable Anna Magnani appears in a scene that is perfectly apropos with the rest of the movie and helps introduce a theme that is relevant to one of the characters.
Even though most of the film swings from drama to melodrama, Almodóvar does not withdraw from comedy, his humor being especially stinging and spontaneous in his subtle descriptions of the small town’s superstitions. This combination of genres does not hinder the film but rather makes it stronger. Thus, the characters’ various dramas do not exempt them from a certain joie de vivre in which there is always an excuse to celebrate life, a feeling that’s truly contagious for the moviegoer. Moreover – and this is a constant with Almodóvar – the door is always left open to hope. After the final scene that depicts Raimunda expressing to her mother how much she needs her and that she cannot understand how she lived such a long time without her, the viewer cannot help but be touched and leave the screening room gratified at having seen a truly artistic work.
The great respect Almodóvar holds for women is echoed in the film’s magnificent performances. This is without a doubt Penélope Cruz’s most important role. Back in a Spanish film after several lamentable performances in Hollywood, she has never resonated before with such vulnerability, integrity, and general demeanor as in her depiction of the protagonist Raimunda. Add to this the warmth, tenderness, and ghostly mischievousness that Carmen Maura brings to the table in a character skillfully elaborated by Almodóvar. Blanca Portillo as a typical village woman who clings to life, Chus Lampreave in a brief but expressive performance, Lola Dueñas and Yohana Cobo complete the shining cast in this matriarchal story.
José Luis Alcaine’s photography is another achievement. His noteworthy images include the view of windmills as the camera approaches La Mancha, evoking Don Quixote. No less exemplary are the images that depict the wake and procession to the cemetery: The only thing missing is a modern El Greco to paint them as a continuation of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz).
The musical score constitutes an indispensable companion to Almodóvar’s stories. As usual, his partner in arms in this matter is Alberto Iglesias, who again succeeds in fashioning a soundtrack that creates a suggestive ambiance complementing the action. Particularly noteworthy is an emotional musical interlude in which Estrella Morente’s voice is lip-synced by Cruz. The former sings Gardel and Lepera’s touching tango Volver in an excellent arrangement seasoned with a flamenco flavor.