Volver Review

During press interviews after the completion of this, his sixteenth film, Pedro Almodóvar stated that Volver "concludes the films I have made about women's universe and the type of families that have moved from rural areas to the capital in search of prosperity. Therefore, it ends a cycle." And whilst that quote may very well turn out to be very true, the fabric of his new film is indeed very much like those that have preceded it.

One of the film's early shots, filmed from on high, is of Penélope Cruz's inviting bosom and the sharp knife that she is washing in the sink. In a single shot Almodóvar has captured one of his core filmmaking philosophies: the powerful hold women have over men, here represented by her hands controlling this phallic symbol. It also shows another powerful motif: the conflict between controlled domestication and uncontrolled violence.

Described in nine words, Volver is an examination of the woman's role in the family. Charting three generations, Raimunda lives in Madrid with her daughter Paula and her husband Paco, an abusive drunk. Raimunda's sister, Sole, is separated from her own husband and works as a secret hairdresser for women. The two sisters lost both their parents in a fire in La Mancha, their birth village, years ago. Their aunt, another Paula, still lives in the village and continues to speak about her sister Irene, mother of the two sisters, as if she were still alive. Gradually the past returns to the family and these revelations firmly dictate the course of the present.

The title translates as "to return", a metaphor for all of the plot's compelling meanderings. Whilst far from a conventional picture, Almodóvar goes to great lengths to portray his leading ladies with humanity and purpose – after all, he is one of cinema's greatest feminists. Indeed, the portrayal of Raimunda's character is sympathetically written and superbly performed by Penélope Cruz which, if there was any justice in the world, would have won her an Oscar. Here is a woman so trapped between her emotions towards the past, her wishes for the future (her daughter) and her feelings for her husband. Some viewers may find the film's screenplay too sensational, but the way in which Almodóvar gradually reveals plot strands fuels the sense of mystery and intrigue that makes the film so rewarding. Plus, of course, Volver has a dramatic backbone which is incredibly subtle and intelligent – relationships are examined, human courage is revealed, bonds are strengthened and necessary sacrifices are made.

As an examination of life in Spain, the film is enthralling. Yes, some elements appear to be stereotyped – the traditional, rustic restaurant and the women's love for cooking and inter-village gossiping – but there is an air of freshness in Volver that is a joy to behold. Almodóvar, often praised as a fine screenwriter, is an overlooked director and his sense of pacing and composition is fantastic. He skilfully juggles farce, black humour, mystery, tragedy and family conflict without losing track of the film's vision: the examination of these women and their powerful role in the family unit.

2006 was a strong year for Spanish language cinema and long may the trend continue. With Almodóvar being complemented by the Mexican tag-team of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, I hope their creative juices continue to flow and provide more compelling, provocative cinema for all of us to enjoy.

The Disc
This Region 3 edition, provided courtesy of the good folks over at CD-WOW and produced by Edko Films Ltd., is a good choice for those consumers who don't want to splash out on the more expensive 2-disc variants. Traditional Chinese and English subtitles are provided during the main feature.

Audio-Visual Presentation
A sumptuous video image is presented in the correct 2.35:1 ratio and it is anamorphically enhanced. The film's colour palette – which is so broad and, at times, so glossy – is effortlessly rendered by a transfer that is largely flawless. Some incidents of aliasing do occur, perhaps as a result of the potentially inferior DVD authoring process from this minor distributor, but on the whole the video presentation does great justice to Almodóvar's visuals. The soundtrack is similarly pleasing – a choice between DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX. Both mixes are naturally provided in the film's original language, Spanish, and the added bonus of a DTS-ES track means that the surrounds are subtly involving in this, a dialogue-driven film. Nonetheless, an ambient soundstage is always welcomed and it is pleasing to note that the distributors have gone to such efforts.

Sadly, the extra features are pathetic. The film's theatrical trailer is accompanied by a photo gallery and a handful of cast and crew filmographies. Volver is crying out for an audio commentary from Almodóvar and Cruz, to say the least.

A ridiculously pleasing film – and one that feels reassuringly self-indulgent – is presented on a solid disc that is only lacking substantive extra features. Nevertheless, this Region 3 edition is sufficiently inexpensive to make it my region of preference over the other releases.

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