Volver (15) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Death becomes her
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The Independent Culture

In the last 10 years, Pedro Almodovar has become, among much else, the greatest director of women since George Cukor. Like Cukor, he revels in their resourcefulness, their generosity, their long-suffering patience and, perhaps above all, their protective talent for masquerade. All of these elements are celebrated, in his eccentric and characteristically perverse way, throughout his latest project, Volver, a comedy melodrama that juggles with moods so freely you that you can hardly tell if it's up or down, funny or sad. Indeed, if there's a better byword for tragicomic than "Almodovarean" I don't know it.

How else to describe the film's opening scene, which is set in a village cemetery in La Mancha, where women of all ages lovingly polish the marble gravestones of their dearly departed, while a fierce wind swirls all about them? Here, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) meet their old friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) and chat quite merrily about the dead, then plant lip-smacking kisses upon one another in farewell.

That giddy compound of playful and mournful sets the tone for what will follow. Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) visit an aged aunt, who talks of their late mother as if she were still alive and still helping to nurse her. Agustina, her neighbour, confirms that their mother's ghost has been heard around the house: mystery is afoot. As ever with Almodovar, we find ourselves not having the faintest idea of what's going to happen next.

Yet he keeps giving us hints and foreshadowings, quite often through his magical subtlety with colour. The red-striped top that Paula wears as she stands by the red horizontals of a bus-stop timetable aren't just there to chime prettily; they prefigure the next scene in which blood leaks from a corpse on the kitchen floor. Paula has just come from killing her father, Raimunda's layabout husband, after he has tried to force himself on her.

Instead of panicking, Raimunda takes charge, wraps up the corpse and hides it in the freezer of a restaurant whose owner has recently retired and left her the keys. In the middle of this task she is obliged to answer the door to a friend, who notes a smear of blood on Raimunda's neck: "Oh, women's troubles", she explains with casual ingenuity, telling the truth even as she covers it up.

So the film will be about her desperate attempts to dispose of the corpse permanently, right? Wrong. The next thing that she does is to re-open the restaurant and, with the help of friends - women, of course - establishes a temporary canteen for a 30-strong film crew that happens to be working nearby.

It's not that Almodovar abandons the thriller potential of his story indicated by the nervous violins of Alberto Iglesias's quasi-Herrmann score: it's just another card in his deck to draw upon later. Instead, the story makes another knight's-move as Raimunda's sister Sole is visited by the ghost of their mother, played - in another kind of dramatic return - by Carmen Maura, the one-time muse of the director (she last starred for Almodovar 17 years ago in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Yet this plunge into the numinous has also been prepared for, in the beautifully lit tableau of women mourners comforting Sole at the wake for her late aunt. The chiaroscuro of funeral black alongside pale faces has the delicacy of that Velazquez picture of the old woman with her eggs. Would anyone now doubt that the director is a great painter-dramatist at work?

Maura, as the maternal revenant, doesn't behave like a ghost: almost the first thing she does on entering Sole's hairdressing salon is to look in the mirror and ask for some colouring for her grey tresses: she may as well look her best while on leave from the afterlife. To divert suspicion she then starts to help with Sole's clients, who seem to swallow the story that she's a Russian immigrant whom Sole has taken in out of kindness. It's not made clear why the mother's spectral reappearance is initially kept a secret from Raimunda, though the daughter eventually detects her, in what must be a movie first, through the smell of farts. Well, they did say that their village was famous for its winds.

The plot keeps leapfrogging itself, almost to the point of exhaustion, during which another secret, evoking the shade of Chinatown, comes to light. Almodovar has no scruples in his borrowings from both ends of the cultural spectrum, so that a glancing allusion to Shakespeare might be mixed with a subplot concerning a daytime confessional TV show (there always seems at least one scene pulled from television in Almodovar). What with hidden corpses, deaths in village fires, unexplained disappearances and a woman braving terminal cancer, Volver sometimes comes on like a tidal wave of soap plotlines, but Almodovar's individual tone and authority keep steadying the ship. Both Cruz and Duenas are terrific as the sisters, with the former's operatic intensity a fine foil to the latter's sweet timidity.

While perhaps not a vintage Almodovar - it lacks the emotional reverberation and audacity of Talk to Her - this film does exhibit his amazing fluidity of tone, that easy shift between realism and fairy tale, the high and the low, the miraculous and the mundane. As I said, no one can predict where this movie will go, but anyone with a beating heart will want to follow it.