Women on the Verge

Pedro Almodovar's latest film includes child abuse, murder, cancer, a corpse stashed in a freezer, a ghost and a village obsessed with the dead--in other words, it's one of his most benign movies. That's the wonderful paradox of "Volver," which Almodóvar describes as "a meeting of 'Mildred Pierce' and 'Arsenic and Old Lace'." It's a mellow melodrama, filled with comedy, compassion and a sense of female community. The great Spanish director's fourth triumph in a row--following "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education"--"Volver" (which means "coming back") flows effortlessly between peril and poignancy, the real and the surreal, even life and death.

If the all-male "Bad Education" was Almodóvar's darkest recent film, the all-female "Volver" is his most embracing. It's about three generations of women overcoming bad marriages, crimes of passion, adultery, familial feuds and, not insignificantly, the evils of TV. The setting is working-class Madrid and La Mancha, Almodóvar's hometown, which seems to be populated entirely by spinsters and widows, who spend their afternoons in the cemetery spiffing up the tombstones.

This is where we meet Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), one in a long line of formidable Almodóvar heroines. For those who know Cruz only from her anemic appearances in English-language movies, her passionate, earthy performance here as a fiercely protective but vulnerable mother will come as a revelation. Raimunda has her hands full. Her beloved aunt has died; her superstitious hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) is hiding a big secret from her; her teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) has just stabbed Raimunda's loutish husband to death in the kitchen, and, unbeknownst to her, her dead mother (Carmen Maura) has returned from the grave and is masquerading as a Russian hairdresser. The other extended-family member is the spinster Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who grew up with Raimunda in La Mancha, the daughter of a hippie mom who mysteriously vanished years ago.

The ingredients may sound sensationalistic, but shock has long ceased to be Almodóvar's goal--he's really exploring (and celebrating) the bonds between these women. His cheerful dismissal of conventional morality is in service of a deeper, more quirky, more human morality. At the center of almost every scene of this bold, warm movie is a splash of red--a purse, a pepper, a car, a blood-soaked paper napkin, a dress--the color of passion, mortality, the heart. Almodóvar's generous vision isn't just unique, it's color-coordinated.