Among his numerous talents, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar knows how to make his performers hustle. This decadent dreamer has put his players to work since his early comedies. While the dysfunctional family of 1984’s “What I Have I Done to Deserve This?” was a natural target, the performers in “Dark Habits” (1983) showed that even women of the veil weren’t safe. His high-energy method of comedy reached an apex with 1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” This film found Carmen Maura, as the abandoned Pepa searching for her husband, to be the best yet at running down the dreams of Pedro.
After some ups and downs (1990’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” was the latter), Almodóvar worked his creative energy into the tour de force “All About My Mother” (1999). This blend of bizarre subject matter and psychological investigation became a modern masterpiece. By conflating classical theater – “A Streetcar Named Desire” is incorporated in a whole new context – with alternate sexualities, Almodóvar shows a range of tragic and comic touches.
But with a filmography of mostly less-probing comedies, it would seem that the lightning had struck for Almodóvar with “Mother.” However, 2002 proved different when he once again elevated melodrama into a surreal experience in “Talk to Her.” Like “Mother,” “Talk to Her” plunges the viewer deeper and deeper into the minds of characters so alive (though two are in comas) that it’s hard to think of them as restricted to their narratives. Both films (“Mother” won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and “Talk to Her,” a much deserved Oscar for Best Screenplay) do not halt this exploration until well into the third act, at which point viewers have reached the sublime.
With two masterpieces back to back, Almodóvar was comfortable to embark on new psychological expeditions. “Bad Education” (2004) proved to be a worthy endeavor, though its noir-fueled conclusion outshined the filmmaker’s attempts to build a complicated framing story. His newest, “Volver,” may not reveal as much psychic gold as “Mother” or “Talk to Her,” but stands as another perceptive tragicomedy in its own right. The capable Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, a fresh take on Almodóvar’s woman on the verge. When her husband attempts to sexually abuse their daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), she kills him and faces her mother with the deed. As Raimunda hides the body, she opens a restaurant (not quite legally) to vindicate herself and her new single status.
But since this is the world a la Pedro, plots are never so simple.
Meanwhile, Raimunda’s dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura, back with the maestro again) mystically reappears to her other daughter, Sole (Lola Dueñas). Irene’s reappearance works to reveal Raimunda’s motivations and fleshes out part of the dual metaphor of the film’s title (literally “to return”). As in his best recent work, Almodóvar uses backstory to develop his central character beyond the storyline’s limits. To reveal more would spoil an emotionally blossoming narrative, over which Almodóvar once again has deft control.
Though let it be known that Cruz performs phenomenally. At the center of this hectic universe, she never misses a step and may even elevate what Almodóvar originally conceived. A very capable supporting cast is left following her lead. In such a successful performance – in fact one of the best of the year – Cruz reminds us of what we are missing with cinema most often centered around male characters.