The opening shots of Pedro Almod¢var's lyrical, emotionally lush "Volver" feature a band of women, young and old, vigorously scrubbing down the tombs of their provincial town's menfolk. Driven mad by the east winds of La Mancha (like Don Quixote, perhaps), the men die young, one of the women offhandedly explains, as if describing an affliction visited on her goats. Men, in fact, are almost entirely shooed off the screen in "Volver," sometimes violently, the better to bring one of the great Spanish director's abiding themes to the fore: the endurance of women and the bonds that unite them. "Volver" means "to come back," and with this movie, Almod¢var is himself returning to the feminine world of such earlier works as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) and "All About My Mother" (1999).
The plot, as is often the case in Almod¢var's films, develops from a glorious tangle of improbable emergencies, greeted with a disarming unflappability. Raimunda (a radiant Penélope Cruz) is plunged into film noir territory when her no-account husband, taken to leering at their teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo), precipitates a bloody crisis. Meanwhile, Raimunda's sister Soledad (a delightful Lola Due¤as) suddenly gets a visit from their mother (Carmen Maura). On the face of it, nothing shocking there, except that Mom just happens to have been dead for years. Such things are common in these parts, we're told, as the departed often return to tie up loose ends and smooth out old rifts and animosities. By fits and starts, we gather that this family has a tragic back story, and by the end, "Volver" becomes a quirky hymn to reconciliation and acceptance.
Almod¢var has reached a point in his development at which he can shake such baroquely plotted, psychologically dense movies out of his sleeve with what looks like astonishing ease. He's able to keep us off balance by radically shifting tones without interrupting the organic flow of the narrative. One moment Raimunda is working out the details of a grisly criminal cover-up, the next she's cheerfully whipping an abandoned restaurant into shape, a la Mildred Pierce. With all its unexpected twists and turns, the story still unfolds naturally, like some gaudy Mediterranean flower.
With an alchemy that is perfectly distinctive, Almod¢var fashions a work of art out of raw material gleaned from soaps, tabloid television and Hollywood's golden age. Much of the dialogue would be right at home in an over-the-top daytime drama ("After what he had done, he had to move to Venezuela") or a weepy novel ("It hurts when a daughter doesn't love her mother"). But these lines are surrounded by so much inspired idiosyncrasy and delivered with such conviction that somehow their hackneyed character melts away, until they glow with a genuine warmth and love difficult to resist.
Moreover, the film is graced with fine, splendidly modulated performances that alone could have carried a much weaker picture. It's easy to see why many critics have taken to comparing Cruz to Sophia Loren in her heyday. Her Raimunda, now fiery, now vulnerable, and always fiercely protective of her daughter, is probably her richest piece of work to date. Although Cruz is certainly the star, the movie is anchored in some ways by the luminous performance of Carmen Maura as the mother apparently returned from the grave. And as a terminally ill neighbor with a mysterious link to the family (another florid subplot), Blanca Portillo has enough edge to keep the proceedings from ever veering into the merely campy or sentimental.
As always, Almod¢var lavishes appreciative attention on people improvising their lives, often a little bit outside the limits of the law, in order to preserve some measure of self-respect. This movie has a lot of respect for hardworking prostitutes, neighborly pot smokers and unlicensed cosmetologists. But it also honors the tradition-bound women of the provinces. When they march in a funeral procession, silent except for the constant fluttering of their black fans, the grave-tenders of La Mancha seem bearers of some archaic, secret and saving knowledge.
And that's what may ultimately be most heartening in "Volver": the idea that there are all kinds of ways to carve out something like a life for oneself and one's family. While there's certainly enough sorrow in "Volver" to go around, there's also a persuasive sense that sometimes wounds can heal, even if they leave a scar. (R) 121 min. *****