THIS WOMAN’S WORK : Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Volver’ [9/10]
They don't allow such vulgar things as bookies on the Cote d'Azur, but if they did then Spanish uber-melodrama Volver would have been a strong favourite to lift the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. As it happened, Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley upset the odds, and writer-director Almodovar had to be content with Best Screenplay and seeing the Best Actress nomination shared among his six leading ladies. To be blunt, he was robbed: while there's no denying the political passion of Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty's work on 'Barley', their film is decidedly pallid and conventional – forgettable, even – alongside Almodovar's brilliantly-structured hosanna to female solidarity.
The plot revolves around Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), an airport cleaner stuck in a cramped city-centre apartment with her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and layabout husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre). It would be unfair to reveal too much of the story here, but Paco ends up dead on the kitchen floor before the end of the first reel. In the wake of Paco's demise, Raimunda and her hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Duenas) return to her rural home-village where elderly locals report sightings of their long-dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura). Initially dismissive of such superstitious talk, Sole is stunned when Irene suddenly 'appears' before her announcing she's returned in order to sort out the problems of the living…
Volver ('return' in Spanish) is a somewhat bald title for such a complex, multi-layered film. On one level, it's a delight to see Cruz – first among equals in a flawless ensemble cast – blossoming in such a terrific, full-blooded role: she's unrecognisable as the hesitant, insipid creature who's been appearing under her name in big-budget American blockbusters (and, currently, those L'Oreal bus-shelter adverts: "No more heartbreak for dry hair" indeed!) But Almodovar is the real star here, his sensitive and imaginative direction making the most of an absolute corker of a script. How rare – and wonderful – it is to find such a combination of style, substance and emotion: a must-see by any standard, Volver is one of the year's very best films.