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Dir/Wr: Pedro Almodóvar/ Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas/ Spain/ 2006

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Volver at amazon.co.uk

Volver at amazon.com

If there were an Oscar for "best use of food in a film," Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver" would surely win. In 'Volver,' Penelope Cruz, who has been nominated for an Oscar for best actress, plays Raimunda, a resilient young mother with no luck but enough culinary talent to turn adversity into accomplishment. Almodóvar shot the film, named for the Spanish verb "to return," in his native region of La Mancha, and in it he revisits the customs and superstitions he grew up with.

The women of his childhood were obsessed with food and feeding people, Almodóvar has written. Certainly, there's a prodigious amount of colourful Spanish, and particularly Manchegan , fare in "Volver," both as sustenance and symbol. Almodóvar travels between reality and fantasy, and the film's living and dead comfortably co-exist. In the kitchen of her senile aunt, Raimunda finds jars of newly preserved pork in olive oil and containers of freshly baked wafers with her name scribbled on them -- does she suspect they were prepared by her own dead mother, come back to nourish the ailing aunt? Is the apparition trying to communicate with her daughter through reminders of her cooking?

In one of the most gorgeous images in ‘Volver’, white blossoms into crimson as a sheet of kitchen towel saturates with blood. Housework here is murder and a woman’s work is never done – not after killing, not even after dying. Almodóvar has long been interested in the varied terrain of ‘women’s troubles’ (as the film’s funniest line ambiguously describes them), and his sixteenth feature returns to many of the concerns of his fourth, 1984’s ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, offering another fable of long-suffering drudgery overcome by domestic homicide and the whiff of quotidian magic (and bodily odours). It’s one of several returns to which the title – meaning ‘coming back’ – refers, along with the road from Madrid to ancestral La Mancha, the irruption of the past into the present and Almodóvar’s professional reunion with Carmen Maura for the first time since ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1987).

The story is at once hysterical and mundane, founded in abuse, rape, murder and corpse disposal yet ultimately about none of these so much as the endurance of those involved. Penélope Cruz steps into the pivotal role taken by Maura in ‘What Have I Done…’: her Raimunda is a working wife and mum holding down several jobs to support her adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). She also makes regular trips back to her home village with her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) to tend their mother’s grave and visit their aged aunt (regular Almodóvar biddie Chus Lampreave). But when Raimunda’s husband suddenly dies and Sole starts receiving visitations from their mum (Maura), both have to learn to live with death and the practical as well as emotional challenges it brings. Looking back, Almodóvar’s career is extraordinarily cohesive, a decade-spanning conversation of images and emotions rendered through ever more sophisticated technique, especially in narrative terms: as always, he makes room here for jealousy and self-reinvention, shoes and hospitals, patterns and mirrors, embedded clips of classic films and pastiches of trash TV, but juxtaposes and frames them with more delicacy and grace than ever – it’s some achievement that the film is both funnier and more moving on repeated viewing, when its pervasive dramatic ironies emerge.

Where the director’s earliest works alternated tragedy and farce, ‘Volver’ masterfully interpolates them: the absurd and the affecting rub along with marvellous, deceptive ease, recalling ‘The Trouble with Harry’ one minute, ‘Babette’s Feast’ the next. Vintage Magnani and Loren, meanwhile, are explicitly evoked in Cruz’s bravura performance.The construction of glamour (another perennial Almodóvar trope) lies at the root of the original sins blighting this family – sins played out in the mad desert garden of their home village. Almodóvar is a native of La Mancha himself and his characters’ return to the social womb has provoked various and complex emotions in his films. The village here is superstitious and somewhat alien – a funeral scene yields eerie, segregated scenes of silent, staring men and a hive of black-clad women awash in the buzz of prayer and clicking of fans – riven by a tearing wind that supposedly fuels insanity as well as ravenous fires. (The frequent shots of modern windmills bring to mind the region’s most famous and delusional scion, Don Quixote.) That the location proves to be restorative as well as traumatic is down to the air of sympathetic sisterhood embodied in the superb ensemble acting (Blanca Portillo is terrific as the sisters’ childhood friend).

More even than ‘All About My Mother’, this is a world of absentee men and multi-tasking women unfettered by conventional expectations – including those of the genre narrative ‘Volver’ initially seems to offer. Time and again the expected development is described rather than shown, or finessed away entirely. The result is to bind us more closely to the characters than the plot in a testament to Almodóvar’s ideal – perhaps idealised – vision of female solidarity. If that kitchen towel shot turned housework into a fight for life, the gorgeous closing credit sequence makes the mundane miraculous, as patterns from the characters’ everyday clothes bloom into screen-filling beauty.

'I grew up hearing stories of apparitions appearing to people,' writes Almodóvar. 'I don't believe in them. Only when they happen to others, or when they appear in fiction.'

But surely, if she could, a mother would come back to nurture her daughter, particularly if there is unfinished business between them. And Raimunda might welcome the opportunity to thank her mother for teaching her how to cook. When her restaurateur neighbor asks the resourceful Raimunda to look after his shuttered cafe in his absence, she seizes the opportunity and unflappably prepares a three-course lunch for 30, served to a film crew on a shoot.

Their only complaint is that the portions aren't large enough. Promising that they will have 'food coming out their eyes' after she is hired to cook for the rest of the shoot, she enlists the help of her women neighbours -- and the very food they have purchased at the market.

Ben Walters/ Beverly Levitt

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