‘Volver’ es muy bueno 

Penelope Cruz has never looked better.

click to enlarge HAUNTED: Cruz, Cobo.
  • HAUNTED: Cruz, Cobo.

If there’s anything that can be universally said about foreign language films, it’s this: They’re either your thing, or they’re not. A few badly dubbed kung-fu flicks notwithstanding, there are some people who you couldn’t make watch a foreign film with eight yards of strong rope and a syringe full of monkey tranquilizer, much less make them enjoy it.

That said, I’m going to put a qualifier on everything else I say in this review. Here it is: If you like foreign language movies, you’re going to love “Volver.” Quirky, colorful, and with the delightful Penelope Cruz (with a bionic, padded ass, to satisfy director Pedro Almodovar’s well-known penchant for casting bottom-heavy women), it’s a hell of a piece of cinema — Almodovar’s first stab at lending a magical-realist bent to his impressive body of work.

In the film, Cruz plays Raimunda, a Spanish mother who works as a housekeeper at a Madrid airport to make ends meet for her ’tween-age daughter Paula, (Yohana Cobo), and her layabout husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre). As the curtain opens, Raimunda is just getting over the death of her parents in a mysterious house fire, and trying to deal with sometimes goofy interactions with her sister Sole (Lola Duenas), her close-to-senile Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), and the recent cancer diagnosis of her friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo).

Soon after the death of Aunt Paula, Sole becomes convinced that the ghost of their dead mother has returned (hence, the title, which is Spanish for “to return”) to help them all in their time of trouble. Her suspicions are confirmed when her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), appears to her in Aunt Paula’s house — seemingly more flesh than spirit. With Irene stubbornly refusing to dematerialize, Sole is forced to take her into the small apartment where she lives and runs an illegal hair salon, telling visitors that she is a Russian housekeeper and hiding her under the bed whenever anyone who might recognize her comes knocking.

Soon, it becomes clear that Irene has returned just before a gathering storm. Raimunda comes home from work one day to find that her daughter has stabbed Paco to death. It seems he made a drunken attempt at rape — but only after telling the girl that sex between them would be OK because he wasn’t her real father.

With skeletons popping out of the closet, and Paco’s body stashed in the freezer of the bankrupt restaurant next door, Raimunda — with the help of some colorful local characters — seeks to cover up the crime, come clean about her daughter’s parentage, reopen the restaurant, comfort her ailing friend, and learn the truth about her mother’s mysterious reappearance.

While not Almodovar’s best work, “Volver” is a fast-paced and funny little romp through a world inhabited solely by women and occupied solely with women’s troubles: bad men, motherhood, sisterhood and cleaning up the messes left by others. Mysterious and often beautiful, the film mostly works because of Cruz, who is shines as bright as any star in the firmament in this subtle, understated role. Cruz’s stunt butt aside, she strikes a classic figure onscreen, easily reminding the viewer of a young Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren, and giving a performance that rivals the best efforts of either of those icons. If she doesn’t take home something from the Oscars, the vote was rigged.

If we’re lucky, Almodovar will continue to explore this interesting and magical backwater to the broad river of celluloid he has already produced. Once you see “Volver,” you’ll know that it might be the piece of the human puzzle the great director has been looking for his entire career: a sense of wonder.



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