EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Chalk up Pedro Almodóvar as one more well-known auteur whose work I profess ashamed unfamiliarity. (A while ago, a friend of mine burned me an .avi file of Bad Education (2004); I still haven't seen it yet, nor am I sure I even have that CD-ROM anymore.) I'm familiar with his melodramatic sensibility, and I'm aware of his "bad-boy" image, but if you were to ask me to try to put his newest film Volver (*** out of ****)---honestly, the first film of his which I've seen---in some kind of auteurist context, I most likely couldn't do so with much authority except for notions gleaned from reviews and such of what kind of an artist Almodóvar is.
My feeling is that Volver probably represents the gay Spanish filmmaker in a mellower, more straightforward mood than in such formally and/or emotionally daring recent works such as Bad Education, Talk to Her (2002) and All About My Mother (1999). If, in previous films, Almodóvar tried to create sympathy for homosexuals or hookers or other "disreputable" types, in Volver he trains his eye mainly on a band of ordinary women trying to keep their heads above water in less than secure circumstances, both financially, physically or emotionally. That some of the troubles that engulf the female characters---and the cast of characters of Volver are pretty much entirely female---include incest and a possible ghost haunting---the ghost being that of a supposedly long-dead matriarch who alerted one of her daughters to the death of a beloved aunt---is only to be expected from Almodóvar: although this film doesn't seem to have the gleeful outrageous frisson of late '80s, early '90s breakthroughs like Law of Desire (1987) or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989), he includes some fairly outrageous, surrealistic material in what is otherwise a warmhearted, convincing portrait of working-class women in Spain. This, of course, has the effect of making Volver genuinely unpredictable and original, as it tries to mix in notes of soap-opera melodrama, tough-minded (neo-)realism, Hitchcockian suspense and (very) lightly Buñuelian surrealism all at once. Personally, I found it an often exhilarating brew---even if the more outrageous elements occasionally come off as a rather awkward fit here than I imagine it does in other Almodóvar films---and it does intrigue me as to what I've missed by not having acquainted myself with his other work.
Anyway, as for Volver on its own terms, I loved it, personally; its sheer generosity and depth of feeling equals the warmth experienced this year in one of my favorite fiction films of the year, Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. It's amazing how warm-feeling a movie that includes incest, adultery and murder can be, but Almodóvar, with all the confidence of his 57 years behind him, manages to make a movie that can be described as both humanist and quietly subversive. It's tricky: you're meant to laugh at the absurdity of some of the soap-opera twists---particularly when they involve the cancer-ridden Agustina (Blanca Portillo) and her quest to find out what happened to her mother---and yet you can't help but feel for these characters, and care. And what about the way Almodóvar, through the camera, clearly adores the ass or cleavage of the star, Penélope Cruz? Yet somehow, one still responds to the character she plays as a real, flawed human being, not just as the sexual object that Almodóvar softly implies she is through not only technique, but also through the way she's dressed throughout.
I haven't seen much of Penélope Cruz in the American films she's been in; I've heard she's been pretty bland and colorless in films like All the Pretty Horses (2000) and Vanilla Sky (2001). Not here, though: here she's a full-blown goddess but also convincingly desperate and multifaceted, by turns tough and tender when she needs to be. It's amazing how vividly Cruz is able to play a working-class woman without sacrificing a whit of her glamor. But Cruz isn't the whole show here (she's just the one the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized enough to give her a Golden Globe nomination, for what that's worth); the whole female-dominated cast is equally fine, particularly Carmen Maura, an Almodóvar alumnus who plays the mother-cum-ghost who has come back to try to make amends. Volver is, if nothing else, an exquisite display of female emotion that equals other exquisite displays of female emotion like Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 (in a more dreamily romantic setting) or Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (in a vastly more anguished, emotionally stark and tortured setting).
Is there more to say about this movie? Only that it's a little amazing how such a potentially campy movie such as this one could turn out to be such a dazzling wellspring of palpable, genuine humanity. But that seems to be the kind of balancing act in which Pedro Almodóvar excels.