Macbeth famously moaned that humanity is but a walking shadow. Pedro Almodovar’s chirpy melodrama about three generations of mothers, daughters and sisters transforms Volver’s world-weary sigh into a defiant song.
Sisters Raimunda and Sole (Penelope Cruz with hair teased up to the heavens and a sparrow-like Lola Duenas) have adjusted well-enough to their parents’ death in a sudden fire. At least mom and dad clung together at the end, Raimunda insists. While the sisters take some comfort in this image, the village women whisper that something must have been left undone, for the ghost of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura) shuns the grave in favor of keeping house for their half-blind Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). Few villagers claim to have seen Irene themselves, but who else could be baking Aunt Paula fresh cookies?
What Raimunda and Sole haven’t realized is that even on Earth, their mother already felt like a ghost. Her daughters rarely called, and stayed so far away in Madrid that they didn’t see the cracks in her marriage. Still, after Aunt Paula dies, Irene decides she has to move somewhere. Since the pushy Raimunda never cared for her much, Irene takes over Sole’s guestroom, where she spends most of her time watching trash TV or hiding under the bed. Irene claims she has no more regrets about her life than the average spirit and isn’t setting about healing or avenging old wounds. Instead, she’s apt to create fresh scars, as Sole’s new secret threatens to divide the two sisters.
Almodovar loves a strong female, and here he’s got plenty of them. In films like All About My Mother and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, women made the centerpiece. But the men hovering around them were the story—a view on the sexes that reached its extreme in Talk to Her when Rosario Flores’ mighty bullfightress is slammed into a coma to be worshipped by Dario Grandinetti’s balding journalist. However here, he kicks men out of the picture altogether after charging them with the crime of being sex-mad beasts. Raimunda’s husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) is a lazy, beer-drinking lout; within 30 seconds of his character’s introduction, he’s peering up his teenage daughter Paula’s skirt—and is quickly dispatched two scenes later. No one says a word of mourning for Raimunda and Sole’s papa, not even when forced by village tradition to clean the marble on his grave (in a witty opening chord, Almodovar pans across a field of wind-swept widows attacking the tombstones with bleach, rags and whisk brooms).
With the men dismissed, Almodovar sets his worthy actresses free to unknot, tug, and test the bonds of sisterhood. By sisterhood, he means the bonds even beyond blood that unite all tired and proud women; Not just the rah-rah Yah Yah twiddle, but the solidarity that comes after your friend has shut the door in your face so many times that you no longer take offense. But in his films, the obvious (if scattered) themes are generally subordinate to Almodovar’s true passion for sex and whimsy—he serves up just enough emotional meat to make his fancies feel filling. With no men and therefore no sex (Cruz’s Raimunda insists she’s no muff-diver—a sly dig on the tabloids), it’s up to charm to twinkle our attention away from the loose threads and daytime TV plotting. Largely, it does. A luscious, brassy Penelope Cruz helms a stellar ensemble that navigates his contrivances with warmth and resonance. Like the prettiest, flightiest girl at the ball, the film dances from agreeable theme to theme—tradition, guilt, respect, strength—but despite being a no-brainer, she captivates nonetheless.