VOLVER written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, with Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Blanca Portillo, Lola Dueöas. 120 minutes. A Sony Classics/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (November 24). For venues and times, see Movies, page 106. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
An actor's home is language, which is why so many actors are uncomfortable working in languages not their own.
Penélope Cruz invariably appears as an exotic oddity in Hollywood movies like Vanilla Sky or Sahara. There's no way to cast her as an American. And when she's working in English, her characters are never at ease in their skins. They always seem to be searching for their words, and her reactions are those of someone working neck deep in water. She can speak English, but she thinks in Spanish.
Cruz's Spanish performances are quicksilver and funny, ever since her first major role in Bigas Luna's Jam&oactue;n (1992), as a rural girl involved in a passionate affair with Javier Bardem.
After her sojourn in America, it's a relief to see Cruz back where she belongs. More importantly, it's a relief to hear her back where she belongs, not trying to wrap her Castilian consonants around English words.
In Pedro Almod&oactue;var's Volver, she's at home as a working-class mom whose husband and favourite aunt have suddenly died, the former under problematic circumstances.
Oh, and her late mother (early Almodóvar stalwart Carmen Maura) has apparently shown up as a ghost and is living with her sister.
In some quarters, Volver has been pegged as a return to the lunatic tone of Almod&oactue;var's early films, particularly What Have I Done To Deserve This, which starred Maura as a speed-addicted Madrid housewife who sells her son to a pedophile dentist.
It's really a return to the subject of early Almod&oactue;var. It's a crazy Rube Goldberg construction of a plot wherein the heroine winds up running a restaurant because she's been trying to hide a corpse in its freezer, but the style and tone are in the voluptuous, saturated colours and relative stately style of All About My Mother, Hable Con Ella and Bad Education.
That is, it's a fast story told slowly, but Almod&oactue;var has reached such a level of virtuosity that he can toss off the Hitchcockian "hiding the body" scene without even breaking a sweat. It's a little too slow and, at two hours, a little too long, but Cruz is stunningly good and the rest of the cast matches her.
The Cannes Festival jury made the unusual decision to award the best-actress prize to Volver's female ensemble, but given Almod&oactue;var's history of knockout female casts, it shouldn't have been a surprise.