The first time I watched Penélope Cruz lip-sync “Volver,” the old song that lends its sentiments and title to Pedro Almodóvar’s new film, I wept–though why, I couldn’t have said. The voice was dubbed; the musical idiom had been shifted, with Spanish imperiousness, from tango to flamenco; and the character’s deepest motivations could only be guessed at, since Almodóvar was waiting for the final reel to reveal them. As perfect moments go, this one was odd and incomplete; and yet, when a plump droplet spilled across Cruz’s eyelashes, tears came to me, too.
The next time, of course, I was prepared. Now every implication of the scene was known; every seam of Almodóvar’s narrative stitchery had been exposed. I wept even more, as the title might have foretold. Volver: to return. All the emotions came back.
What else returns in this beautifully improbable movie? The list might begin with an actress, Carmen Maura, who is closely identified with Almodóvar but had long been absent from his films. Next comes the character Maura plays: a ghostly mother who reinserts herself into her family’s affairs, while giving off (despite death) the flatulent scent of life. Then there’s a repeated wrong. Years ago, Maura’s character unwittingly harmed her daughter (Cruz), who now has done much the same to her own teenage child (the indelible Yohana Cobo). Like the wind-powered turbines you periodically see in this movie–the characters having come from a town of incessant gales, which are said to drive people crazy–the story keeps spinning back to these recurring elements, and more: a scuffed suitcase, a native landscape, a good deed, a corpse.
Memories of older films return as well, as they often do in Almodóvar’s work. They are for him what biblical texts used to be for English poets: basic materials of thought. And so in Volver he imitates a bit of Psycho here, some Mildred Pierce there, to articulate his ideas. If I had to explain the themes in general terms, I’d say they concern the sin of not seeing what’s before your eyes. Volver is about invisibility as a just punishment for this sin; about the false visibility, or self-exposure, promoted by a degraded form of show business; and about the revelations made possible, by contrast, through a true performance, which can be public and personal at the same time. Most of all, though, Volver is an exciting crime story, comedy and tear-jerker about the ways these themes may loop back through generations of women.
Which just goes to show you: To explain Volver in general is to explain nothing at all. That’s why Almodóvar needs his scriptures, including (most significantly) a clip from Visconti’s Bellissima. A segment of that film, appearing late in Volver, encapsulates the events as no synopsis could. It also transforms Cruz retrospectively into another example of something that returns. Implicitly, the excerpt makes her a double of Bellissima‘s star, Anna Magnani.
As types, the two are not much alike, except for their swarming heaps of dark hair. Cruz pokes skyward instead of pulling toward the earth; she lingers over her emotions, nestling them within, rather than hurling them out impatiently. Whereas Magnani instinctively, famously, shouted for help, Cruz is capable of suffering in silence. But as Almodóvar knows, his star can stride through a working-class district with all the authority of her predecessor. She, too, can seem to carry in her limbs the weight of a long day’s labor. And if her body is too finely drawn to be entirely convincing in her present role–“These characters are always big-assed women,” Almodóvar has written, “and Penélope is too slim”–a loving director knows how to show off what flesh there is. In an early shot that summarizes much in Volver and foreshadows more, Almodóvar photographs Cruz from directly above, so that the perspective lines run down the inner surface of her breasts into the profound shadows of a cleavage that the costumer keeps perpetually exposed. The character is standing at a kitchen sink, stoically washing the evening’s dishes, while you gaze over this site of troubled, uncontainable sexuality, looking down toward the object at the vanishing point: a very large, very sharp knife, which will only temporarily remain clean.