I’ll get it out of the way more quickly: Penélope Cruz is hot. Now, moving on.
Volver is a physical film, maybe even more so than most movies, but it’s also a tough and mature movie, which can get lost in the ass-padding excitement. Cruz plays Raimunda, a hardworking, newly single mom who seems too busy running a restaurant, dealing with her aunt’s death and covering up her daughter’s (quite justified) murder of her (Raimunda’s) husband to put on all that make-up, though we do see her doing so once. Her sister Sole (played by the actually-plenty-attractive-herself Lola Dueñas) has even more to worry about when their dead mother shows up—looking very much alive—in the trunk of her car.
A flood of long-kept secrets sweeps through the family like the east winds that spark fires and superstitions in their home village. Incest, murder, disappearances—the women in the film handle it all with a matter-of-factness that falls short of stoic (it would be impossible to call such a vivid, colorful film stoic) but seems somehow very European to me. Revenge and forgiveness are not contradictory to these characters, or at least not far apart. Burying one’s rapist husband and lovingly carving his headstone are all in a busy day’s work.
I suspect that an American movie—at least one with a less adept director than Pedro Almodóvar—would have spent a lot of time driving home the point that child abuse is bad, and then have followed up with a lot of weepy epiphanies. These characters laugh and cry quickly and then move on; sometimes my American head almost craved a little hammer-hitting. The movie is dark and funny, but not quite a dark comedy. Lush but not a spectacle. Almodóvar holds and delivers all of these tensions like a figure skater at her fourth Olympics—it’s only after the breathtaking routine that it occurs to you that triple axles aren’t all that easy, and that the intricate footwork between leaps probably isn’t either. Like Raimunda, he just shakes out his apron and gets back to work.