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Don’t Believe the Hype

Pedro Almodóvar, the writer/director of All About My Mother, the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner in 1999 and Talk to Her, the Best Screenplay winner four years ago, has justifiably been called “the most internationally acclaimed Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel.” Early on in a filmmaking career that began just as Spain emerged from four decades under fascism, Almodóvar gained accolades and respect for his willingness to challenge cultural and social conventions regardless of the consequences. But time seems to have softened Almodóvar’s once razor-sharp storytelling and critical skills. Case in point: Almodóvar’s latest film, Volver, a family drama let down by uninspired plot turns and overindulgent running time.

Volver follows four generations of women connected by biology and/or history. The thirty-something Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) struggles to keep her family afloat. Her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), has begun the slow-motion separation that will inevitably lead her to a life of her own. Raimunda’s sister, Soledad (Lola Dueñas), permanently separated from her husband, makes a modest living running an illegal hair salon from her apartment. Raimunda and Soledad’s elderly aunt, Paula (Chus Lampreave), has just about lost it. In ill health and losing her grip on reality, aunt Paula imagines that Raimunda and Soledad’s late mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), has returned from the grave to keep her company and help out around the house.

While both Raimunda and Soledad dismiss aunt Paula’s visions, her passing turns their lives upside down. Soledad arrives home with an unwanted guest in the trunk of her car, Irene, very much corporeal, very much interested in becoming part of Soledad’s life. Whether alive or a ghost, Irene has come back to offer support and comfort, but also to make amends for unspecified wrongs from Raimunda’s past. Raimunda’s life, however, is full of complications, beginning with her unemployed, alcoholic husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and a childhood friend, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who’s coping with a terminal illness.

Story wise, Volver stays close to a subject near and dear to Almodóvar’s heart, women without men, how women create supportive networks in the absence of or in place of unsatisfying relationships. Perhaps Almodóvar’s take is overly idealized and optimistic, but it’s one he’s elaborated on over a twenty-five year career. While Almodóvar throws in a handful of complications to keep Volver moving forward, he seems less interested in the revelations or complications that threaten to derail his characters’ lives than in exploring the paths they take toward reconciliation.

That’s all well and good, but Almodóvar also seems to have gotten lazy with the revelations; he holds back from the audience until the final moments. Casual moviegoers will guess the “shocking” reveal at least a half-hour before the characters do. Cineastes will guess the major revelation much earlier, leaving them waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up and open up to each other for the obligatory tears-and-hugs scene. It’s too bad, though. With Irene’s status as “real” or a ghost left unanswered for most of Volver’s running time, the potential was there for events to take a magical-realist turn, but Almodóvar opts for more mundane answers -- answers that prove disappointing for their obviousness.

Oddly, Almodóvar decided to leave out the convention-bending eroticism, suspense, melodrama, and comedic farce that he’s known for. And let’s not forget transvestites. That’s right, there’s not a single transvestite anywhere to be seen in Volver. Whether it’s deliberate or just Almodóvar mellowing with age, Volver is one of Almodóvar’s gentlest films (violence occurs offscreen), focusing almost exclusively on women and their relationships with one another. What about the male characters? Good question, but they’re either dead or offscreen, with two minor exceptions, a restaurant owner and a film director, who drift in and out of Raimunda’s life. Raimunda’s late father doesn’t make an appearance. He’s practically a mythic presence and what we learn about him tends to be negative (a womanizer and adulterer, among other faults).

More importantly, Volver seems to indicate that Almodóvar’s storytelling skills have slipped. Together with his previous film, Bad Education, a noirish take involving priests, pedophilia, transvestites, and meta-fiction undermined by a sloppy, unsatisfying third act, Volver may signal the beginning of a decline inevitable to any filmmaker or artist who’s said everything he’s going to say and is stuck repeating himself.

Even then, Volver doesn’t have the energy, outré humor, and visual design we’ve come to expect from Almodóvar’s films. It’s a shame, really, since Almodóvar leaves several talented actresses to struggle with thin, underwritten material, a rarity in Almodóvar’s oeuvre.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars