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.