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Penelope Cruz shines --- finally --- in Pedro Almodovar's newest


Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last confession, and this is something I'm not particularly proud of: I've never really understood all the hype surrounding Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. The free world gets positively giddy when a new Almodóvar film appears on the horizon, and I've always played along, secretly knowing there was something I wasn't grasping that everyone else did. Then once I would finally witness this art, I waited for an epiphany that never came. Almodóvar's latest is called Volver, and it's yet another of his love letters to the fierce camaraderie of women. This time, however, I think I get it.

Penélope Cruz teams up with Almodóvar for a third go-round (following 1997's Live Flesh and 1999's All About My Mother) to play Raimunda, a working-class wife and mother in Madrid with a 14-year-old daughter and a husband whose wildly improper desires are telegraphed to us upon his introduction. Raimunda's life then changes in a very Mildred Pierce/Lana Turner way, though corpse disposal becomes the least of her worries as a film crew shows up in need of a caterer right around the time sweet Aunt Paula, the woman who raised her, passes away back in their little village. Oh, and Raimunda's late mother Irene (Carmen Maura, Almodóvar's leading lady from 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) has apparently returned from the dead to help Raimunda's sister Sole (adorable Lola Dueñas) with her illegal hair salon.

Almodóvar finds a way to channel what probably sounds like contrived whimsy into a moving, Douglas Sirk-esque look at an interlaced group of women who greet each other with oodles of noisy kisses, traffic in superstition, outlive their men, and take care of those who took care of them. A possible romance between Raimunda and the film crew liaison never materializes the way it would in any other movie, and that's Almodóvar: the men of the Volver are an afterthought, sheer plot devices to illustrate the complicated bonds between mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

Also Almodóvar are Volver's lush visuals, whether he's showcasing the primary colors of Madrid, the earth tones of a Spanish village, paper towels blossoming with blood, or exquisite Mediterranean women of all ages and sizes. There's a great overhead shot of Raimunda frantically rinsing off a viscera-covered knife, but the eye is automatically drawn to Raimunda's juicy curves, which would later prompt a question that only a mother could ask: "Have you always had such a big chest?" The writer in Almodóvar has an ear for the ladies, the candid way in which women who are familiar with each other converse: lovingly antagonistic, vulnerably blunt, and far more crude than most men know... or want to know.

Hollywood understandably tried to steal Penélope Cruz a while ago (her stateside film debut was in Stephen Frears' underrated 1998 Western The Hi-Lo Country) but it hasn't done her any favors, unable to see beyond her beauty and casting her as the exotic bombshell nearly every time out (a notable exception: the late Ted Demme's 2001 drug flick Blow). Acting in her native tongue --- and under the guidance of a director who clearly brings out the best in her --- Cruz gives her finest performance to date as Raimunda, intensely loyal, kinda bitchy, and surprisingly funny. Watch for the scene in which Cruz tearfully belts out a tune taught to her by her mother at the film crew's wrap party; it's one of the most heartbreaking interludes of the season. Cruz already received a Golden Globe nomination for her role, and she can probably count on her first Oscar nod as well.

The rest of Almodóvar'sgyno-centric ensemble also shines --- the Best Actress prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival went to Volver's entire cast --- especially Lola Dueñas as Raimunda's timid sister, overcoming her fear of the dead to reconnect with her much-missed mother. And Carmen Maura, all frowzy grey hair and housecoats, graciously cedes the Almodóvar spotlight to Cruz but goes down swinging with her portrayal of an imperfect woman trying to right the wrongs against her loved ones. Is she really a ghost? I'm not telling. I just got into this club and I'm not ready to be kicked out.

Volver (R), written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, opens Friday, January 19, at Little Theatres.

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