Pity Pedro Almodóvar. He's so good so often that the world has come to expect a masterpiece with every new picture.
Such demands are understandable but unwarranted for "Volver," his 16th film and his most easily digestible movie since 1995's "The Flower of My Secret" (no bendy narratives this time). If that lack of formal ambition sounds disappointing, this comedy brings the director back to La Mancha, the town of his youth in south central Spain that Cervantes centuries before made famous. The homecoming, even when measured against the accomplished feeling in Almodóvar's recent films, proves magnificent.
The story here is a kind of fairy tale, set entirely in working-class burghs, and it gets less dark as it goes on. The clouds are perpetually parting. Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a wife and mother, spends her days cleaning at the airport only to come home to her small Madrid apartment and clean some more.
An ugly turn of events right out of "Mildred Pierce" involving her tough teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo ) turns fortuitous for her, and she winds up a proprietress of a little restaurant whose principal clientele is a 30-person film crew. Things get even more interesting when Raimunda's sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas ), discovers that their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura ), who died years ago with their father in a fire, is suddenly very much alive. Shocked and touched, Sole hires Irene to be the shampoo girl at the illegal hair salon she runs out of her house. (Dueñas does wonders with flighty agitation.)
Sole keeps the news from Raimunda, telling her sister over the phone that she's hired a Russian to help out. Even if "Volver" were unbearable, the scenes of Maura clowning it up as a burly Russian hausfrau would have saved it. This radiant and deeply wise movie doesn't need saving, though.
"Volver" brims with personal and cinematic allusions, but no one hungry for a well-told tale from a master storyteller is required to understand them. The only requirement is a human heart. Sticklers will complain about the film's lack of narrative tidiness, but "Volver" is actually about a kind of undoing, the abolition of anguish. Its emotional structure works backward from melancholy to mirth. By going in the reverse, he's unburdening the melodrama of its fraught build ups. (What was that I said earlier about a lack of ambition?)
The focus is chiefly on the bond between mothers and daughters. There are enough here to make the film an intense filial latticework, including the peculiar friend of Raimunda and Sole's family, Augustina, played by Blanca Portillo, who's tremendous -- so are her shrill kisses. The woman has built a shrine to her hippie mother in this virtually manless world. (Many of the men who do appear cast an ominous shadow.)
Like many of Almodóvar's pictures, "Volver" blossoms in the memory, which is where I'll let the film's star live rent-free forever. Almodóvar loves all his actors, but he's never seemed as besotted as he does here with Cruz. What he's done with her (and for her, for that matter) feels like a miracle.
After she played a pregnant, HIV-positive nun in Almodóvar's "All About My Mother," Tinsel Town locked her up in junk. In "Volver," the director has reclaimed her and achieved what so many Hollywood hacks could not: He's sensualized her. That, of course, is not all there is to Cruz here, but neither Almodóvar nor his star discourage your ravishment, either. Whether she's dusting a headstone, mopping bloody linoleum tile , or pretending to chirp a tune, Cruz is a spectacle.
But the chilling surprise is the emotional life force emanating from her. She wears all flattering shades of red, has her hair up, and Almodóvar offsets her slender face with a sizable pair of hoop earrings. Yes, she's supposed to evoke the va - va-voom of the great European earth-goddesses (a clip of Anna Magnani on a bed in Visconti's "Bellissima" plays on TV), but the strategy is a little more personal for Cruz, too.
She grew up in a modest workaday Madrid neighborhood like the one Raimunda lives in. And she inhabits these kitchens, bends over these floors, saunters down these streets with visible ease. "Volver" in Spanish means "return," and everything about Cruz in this movie says she's come home, too.