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Volver Reviews

Volver means to come back, and Pedro Almodovar's love letter to resilient women who transcend secrets, lies and bitter disappointment through ferocious love for their families is a series of variations on a theme of returning: Revisiting your roots, mending relationships, reconsidering the past and even coming back from the dead. Sultry, outspoken Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her introverted sister, Soledad — appropriately nicknamed Sole (Lola Duenas) — both left their tiny La Mancha hometown for Madrid, but regularly make the long drive back. They worry about their elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), with whom Raimunda lived as a teenager and after whom she named her now 14-year-old daughter (Yohana Cobo): Aunt Paula has grown progressively more infirm, and neither Sole nor Raimunda can imagine how she copes on her own. The concerns are not allayed by her insistence that their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura, returning to the Almodovar fold after a 17-year absence), does the cooking and cleaning — even though she died three years earlier in a fire that also killed their father. Fortunately, neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo) checks on Aunt Paula daily, in part because she's haunted by the thought of her own mother, who, alone and uncared for, vanished the same day Raimunda and Sole's parents died. Agustina herself is clearly ill, and sadly estranged from her sister, a trash-TV star. But worse trials await them all. Raimunda's sporadically employed husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), loses yet another job and drunkenly attempts to rape his daughter; Raimunda returns from work to find Paula traumatized and Paco dead. As Raimunda grimly mops up the mess, Sole calls to say Aunt Paula has died. Though terrified of dead people, Sole must attend the funeral alone and, to her horror, sees her mother in Tia Paula's house. Sole flees home to Madrid, but Irene's oddly corporeal spirit hitches a ride in her trunk and moves into Sole's guest room. Irene makes herself useful, but clearly has unfinished business to resolve with her daughters — especially Raimunda. Crammed with outrageous turns of fortune and quicksilver shifts in tone, Almodovar's film is held together by performances so subtle and complex it's hard to single out only one as exceptional. But Cruz is astonishing, playing Raimunda as loyal, capable and fiercely protective of her loved ones, but also short-tempered and quick with a wounding word; her impromptu performance of the ballad "Volver," which she last sang as an aspiring child actress, sums up a lifetime of longing, defiance, regret and hope in a few thrilling minutes. (In Spanish, with subtitles)