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Volver Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2007

Image The rural Spanish village of La Mancha is prone to windstorms, which cause occasional outbreaks of deadly brushfires. Four years ago, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas) lost their mother (Carmen Maura) and father in a fire. When their aunt dies, Soledad is beset by the mysterious return of her mother, whom Soledad assumes is a ghost with unfinished business. At the same time, Raimunda is forced to handle an unpleasant situation involving her husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and her daughter, Paula (Yohano Cobo). Soledad attempts to keep their mother’s presence a secret from Raimunda, but a reunion of the two feels imminent.

“Volver” means “to return” and while the title refers to several aspects of the story, the most significant one, beyond the story, is the return of Spanish movie star Carmen Maura, who, after an absence of eighteen years makes a welcome return to the world of Pedro Almodovar. The last film they worked on together was 1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” the film that put him on the map. Maura proves wonderfully game here, allowing herself to look haggard and old in the early scenes, and delivering a performance of both humor and heart.

“Volver” shows Almodovar at the top of his game. It’s a women’s picture concerned with the relationships of mothers and daughters, the trouble that men can cause and the need to keep carrying on, regardless of the horrible events that occur in life. As expected from an Almodovar film, it’s a bouillabaisse of genres; there are crime, suspense film elements, women’s melodrama, comedy, and a mix of urban and rural community settings. The script by Almodovar does not waste any time in its storytelling. The opening fifteen minutes are pretty intense, less from on-camera action as with important dialogue. The conversations in the beginning that set up the characters and their relationships are packed with crucial details, tossed off bits of back story and establishing elements that will be used later. It’s very easy to miss some of this on first viewing, but additional screenings show the great care and skill with which the film was constructed. In some respects, it’s a masterpiece in minimalism, conveying a lot with very small brush strokes.

The entire ensemble is terrific. Penelope Cruz is glorious as Raimunda. It’s a challenging role full of wonderful moments, and Cruz immerses herself in the role. While dressed to look a bit more dowdy and less glamorous, her beauty shines through it all, like a candle in the darkness. There’s a brilliant scene where she sings the title tune (well, lip-syncs it, actually) in a restaurant. As she looks off-screen, Almodovar has her eye-line match that of her mother, who is watching from a car on the street. It’s a great cinematic trick, as Raimunda actually cannot see her mother, and they’ve not been reunited yet. Almodovar has her react emotionally while singing the song, so that it feels as if this is the main reunion scene and that the visible emotions on Raimunda are a reaction to seeing her mother, as if the release of emotions were a direct result, when it’s us the audience who are making those connections because of the editing and direction. It makes it no less powerful.

To reveal any more about the plot and the story developments in the film would do it an injustice, as there are several different surprises along the way. Overall, it’s a film that stirs depths of emotion, but does it quietly and subtly. You find yourself reacting more strongly than you might expect. It’s probably one of the most emotionally affecting films Almodovar has done.

As expected, the set designs and the use of colors is rich, bold and lush. The restaurant scenes are particularly sumptuous. Food never looks better than in Almodovar films, and here one can almost taste the margaritas. Most tantalizing of all is a brief scene of Raimunda making this giant, amazing looking flan, contained in a bucket. A food connoisseur would be overcome at the site of her tipping out the flan and its caramel sauce onto a large plate.

There are a few highly visual directors, who spend such care in the way they frame their shots and the use of colors and lighting that 35mm screenings are essential in appreciating the clarity and vibrancy of the visuals. Pedro Almodovar is high on that list (as is Takeshi Kitano), and the use of bold primary colors and smooth, razor sharp imagery draws you into the world of the film. The almost tangible sense of being able to reach out and touch the vividly colored food, furniture and clothes makes his films absorbing experiences. DVD is fine, but not quite there. Blu-ray admirably bridges the gap, finally bringing the richness of the theatrical Almodovar experience into the living room. The extra level of sharpness and detail on display in high definition is like removing a veil from the image. Sony’s Blu-ray issue of “Volver” is an impressive disc; pristine and sharp with rich, vivid and accurate colors, rock solid image stability and an overall smooth appearance. It’s stunningly film-like, and a little less grainy than I remember the theatrical print being. The Blu-ray experience is so much stronger and richer than standard DVD that I hope Sony releases the rest of their catalog of Almodovar films in the format asap.

Sound-wise, the surround track is in fine form. Presented in Lossless, uncompressed PCM, the track is vibrant, warm and occasionally thrilling. It’s not a busy mix, and is minimal in surround usage (it’s primarily dialogue driven), but the clarity and extra frisson accorded the music track is admirable. Alberto Iglesias’s Bernard Herrmann via La Mancha-styled orchestral score is conveyed with appreciable and tangible stereo separation across the front channels. Low string instruments and castanets feel almost tangibly present.

A substantial package of extras is included, including a commentary with Almodovar and Cruz (in Spanish, subtitled in English) and featurettes and interviews totaling about an hour. Almodovar takes the lead in the commentary track, for a detailed, scene-specific discussion of the film’s story and production elements. A group of trailers, separately indexed for upcoming Blu-ray titles is a welcome sampling. It’s a satisfying extras package that efficiently touches on all the bases. Now where does one find a bucket-sized flan in Los Angeles?

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