Volver – to come back or return – is an exceptionally fitting title for Pedro Almodóvar’s Palme D’Or contender. It’s a return, after the male-dominated duo of Talk To Her and Bad Education, to a story saturated with Almodóvar’s love and compassion for women of all shapes, sizes and sentiments; a hearty tribute to the Spanish maestro’s rural La Mancha roots and a captivating reunion with two of his former muses – Cruz, who appeared in All About My Mother, and Maura, the gleaming star of his career-launching ’80s movies.
They play mother and daughter in a feisty, supernatural-inflected melodrama about the redemptive power of female bonding, although Almodóvar keeps his muses apart until a third-act crescendo, when the emotional floodgates are opened. If you only know Cruz from her insipid English-language forays, prepare to be astounded: as spirited mama Raimunda, she’s earthy, sensual, electric – a radiant combo of Mildred Pierce (one of many camp classics Pedro tips his hat to) and Anna Magnani, made up as the spitting image of Sophia Loren at her sultry, early-’60s peak. Almodóvar’s camera can’t get enough of her, zooming in for soul-scorching close-ups on her limpid eyes (framed by chunky black eyeliner and frequently welling with tears), ogling her like a builder as she swings her hips through the Madrid barrios or lingering above her remarked-upon cleavage while she does the washing-up.
Despite La Cruz’s force-of-nature turn and Almodóvar’s clever, peppery writing (which sees a welcome re-emergence for his trademark farcical trimmings), Volver falls short of being a masterpiece to equal All About My Mother, the usually adept blend of comedy, thriller and melodrama not always gelling here. But it’s still the work of a poised and ambitious creative force. His early, giddy lunacy may have been replaced by a more sober maturity, but Almodóvar’s ability to generate vibrant, brightly hued characters and powerful, engaging drama remains as strong than ever.