For Almodóvar, Volver represents a return of other sorts as well: to his childhood home of La Mancha; to lighter material after his elaborately Hitchcockian Bad Education; and to All About My Mother's Penélope Cruz, who, cast here as Irene's catering daughter, Raimunda, delivers her most loose-limbed and endearing performance. In fact, the film's playful ode to female resilience owes enormously to the dynamic ensemble work of five gifted comediennes. Fair warning: If you're not terribly fond of women, you probably shouldn't see Volver, a movie wherein mere mortality doesn't stop mothers from loudly smooching their daughters' cheeks, a breezy comedy in which a seemingly typical male gets stabbed, stuffed into a refrigerator and buried.
Suitably for a film that celebrates the supernatural strength of women's work, Volver opens on the image of ladies scrubbing headstones in a windswept cemetery, as if to suggest that their scrupulous care of the departed will bring material benefits in this life and maybe the next. Almodóvar gets a gentle kick out of mixing the extraordinary and the everyday, putting otherworldly elements in the most familiar of contexts. Maura's reincarnated Irene is a bemused granny with stringy hair and a slightly ratty turquoise shawl; her first appearance, startling but hardly flabbergasting her daughter Soledad (Lola Dueñas), is on a staircase in the middle of the afternoon. Later, she shows up in the trunk of Sole's car.
Dueñas, as a Madrid hairdresser with the straightest bangs on the block, adorably evokes the niña next door, whereas Cruz, even in proletarian costume, playing protective mother to fragile teen Paula (Yohana Cobo), inevitably signifies International Movie Star. Almodóvar tailors Volver to Cruz's specifications, using her cleavage as the dominant element of countless shots and temporarily halting the narrative so that she can enjoy belting out a musical number that wouldn't look out of place in a Doris Day vehicle. The reel flirts freely with the real: Almodóvar has also name-dropped the eternal Mildred Pierce, though the fate of Paula's lazy, lecherous stepfather, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), more closely resembles that of Johnny Stompanato, legendarily carved up in 1958 by Lana Turner's 14-year-old kid, Cheryl.
About half an hour into the film, Almodóvar's gorgeous shot of blood saturating two paper towels you'd think you were watching time-lapse images of a rose in bloom momentarily suggests a tonal shift for the entire movie. Channeling Hitchcock even in this, the slightest work of his 16-film career, Almodóvar isn't what he used to be (who is?), but he's a master of the medium nevertheless, deploying color, light and shadow not merely to express emotions but to tap into ours, directing the blood flow of the audience as much as he directs the movie.
Volver could veer anywhere from that sopping towel, so complete is Almodóvar's control of the mood, but it's no disappointment that the movie remains relatively low-key. With a corpse on ice and in need of burying, Cruz's caterer is suddenly, absurdly saddled with 30 extra mouths to feed, and it's hardly a burden. In a single shot, Almodóvar follows Raimunda up the road as she meets one girlfriend and then another, easily enlisting them to supply pork and some sausages. The meatball in the fridge can be dealt with later.