Pedro's Ghost Story

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Sometimes the worst thing a good movie can have in advance is the expectation it will be a great one.

In his 26-year career as a feature-filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar has compiled an imposing track record that, I'd say, can't be matched by any contemporary director. His films mix deeply emotional stories — soap operas elevated to art — with sensational performers (usually actresses) and a visual style both exuberant and perfectly controlled. All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002) are a pair of flat-out masterpieces, the first of which was a finalist for Richard Schickel's and my all-TIME 100 Movies list, the second of which graced it. Bad Education (2004), slipping a story of sexual exploitation into a labyrinthine framework of a film-noirish narrative, was another knockout.

For all his laurels (including a Best Screenplay Oscar for Talk to Her), Pedro, as all call him, had never won a Cannes Palme d'Or. Best Director for All About My Mother was the best he'd done. So this year, with his brand-new Volver, he was an early favorite to cop the top prize.

Yet the mood at the critics' screening of the film was not one of respect, not awe. The feeling was that Pedro was not working at his usual masterpiece altitude. I had no definitive verdict to offer, so I did something I don't usually allow myself at a festival, where there is so much to see and write about. I saw the movie again at the public screening. The second time, not expecting a masterpiece, I found a film that pleased, impressed and touched me — a fully satisfying comedy-melodrama about the burden of motherhood, the power of sisterhood.

Volver begins with a tracking shot through the cemetery in a Spanish village, as dozens of widows polish the tombstones of their late husbands. It is a collective act of devotion, of civic pride and maybe (from what we learn later in the film) of atonement. Among the mourner-scrubwomen are two sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Soledad (Lola Dueñas), tending the grave of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura), dead these four years. Visiting Irene's older, failing sister Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), they hear the daft woman's claim that she has been cared for by Irene's ghost. This is dismissed as sweet dementia, until Sole, returning to Madrid, opens the trunk of her car and finds Irene, the corporeal ghost, scrunched up inside. Mom expects to "live" with her daughter; and Sole, ever dutiful, obliges, as long as she helps Sole in the hairdressing business she runs out of her home, and hides in the bedroom whenever Raimunda drops in.

Raimunda's life is also full of incident. She has returned to Madrid with her 14-year-old daughter, also named Paula (Yohana Cobo), only to find her layabout husband Paco in a drunken sulk. Soon after, Raimunda learns that Paco had sexually assaulted Paula and, in self-defense, she knifed him to death. Now, what does Raimunda do with the body? A neighbor pops in to say he's going away and leaving her to mind his restaurant next door. Raimunda and Paula drag Paco's body there to stash it. Almodóvar has managed, suavely and plausibly, to get a corpse in the freezer and a ghost under the bed.

And he's just getting started. Nearly everyone has a dreadful secret she is keeping from someone else. The plot, as it unfolds in a series of startling revelations, plows the dark past to exhume codes of predation and murderous reprisal that are repeated across three generations. Not to give too much away, I'll just say that victimization and a violent streak run in the family, most of it traceable to Irene's husband, who was "born to hurt the women who loved him." But this is an Almodóvar film, so with all this aberrant activity comes the need for understanding bizarre behavior. As Raimunda and Sole go back to the strange town of their childhood — which, we learn, has "the highest rate of insanity per inhabitant" — they find that the important thing in life is to acknowledge the hurt and try to forgive it.

Volver, which means "return," is an apt title for a movie that marks a return both to Pedro's early, realistic melodramas and to the plot of All About My Mother. In both movies, an important male character dies violently in the first 20 mins.; the story then traces the lead female character's reliance on other women to get through difficult times, even as she helps them. There are differences, of course. The earlier film defined motherhood as nurturing life; the new one adds to that the mission of angelic vengeance, in which women determine that the sexual sins of the father are punishable by death.

The movie has been called a comedy, and there are light touches to leaven the melodrama, like the super-noisy kisses the women exchange — sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes five, depending on how close they feel to the kissee. When Sole asks her niece Paula, "What's wrong with you?" (not knowing the girl has just been forced into murder), she shrugs and replies, "I'm at a difficult age." But the real epiphanies are not comic. Cruz, in a fortissimo performance, sings (lip-synchs, actually) the flamenco song "Volver" with a passion that expresses Raimunda's indomitable peasant will. And in a lovely moment, on the first night Irene has come to live with her, Sole crawls into bed and cuddles up with the sleeping ghost of her mother.

This is the first film in 18 years that Almodovar has made with Maura, the earthy muse of his early years. From his first feature through five more films, culminating with his international hit Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Maura always grounded the director's flights of cinematic and sexual fantasy. But after the breakthrough with Breakdown came a public breakup. After two films with Victoria Abril, Almodovar made five features (all terrific) with five different actresses in the lead roles. Bad Education had no significant female roles at all, as this one has no dominant males.

Now the actress and the director are back together, for another exploration of women in extremis, and they seem instantly in perfect synch. The last line of the film, which Cruz enunciates with a grand, simple intensity to Maura, could also be Almodovar's testimony to his old friend and star: "I don't know how I've lived all these years without you."

It's our pleasure — mine, anyway — to come to Cannes knowing that, every two years, Pedro can be counted on to bring another splendid film. Is Volver a masterpiece? Probably not. But it is the work of a master still at the peak, the high plateau, of his form.

—Richard Corliss

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