CRUISING CRUZ

Only in the last few years has Penélope Cruz blossomed into the beauty so marvelously on view in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Such a feast for eyes here that most of us forget or can’t get over that when she started in movies she was rather mousy, an unappealing little waif whose acting talents sometimes warranted a Razzie nomination as worst actress—for example, in Blow and Vanilla Sky. Though excellent in All About My Mother, she hadn’t yet mirrored the looker to come. That’s why there’s speculation she’s undergone some special effects, if not an extreme makeover, but both she and Pedro deny it: they claim the only thing not hers naturally in Volver is the fanny. (Her bottom padded because he believes the kind of character she plays usually has a fattened up ass.) With wide brown eyes beaming with confidence, Cruz is so hypnotically gorgeous and radiant that at times you’re not listening to or via subtitles reading a single word; her appearance is as voluptuous as Sophia Loren’s when she hit her own ripeness, when she lost the fat face and immoderate fleshiness, and the best we could do, before instant replay, is nudge a movie companion and ask, “What did she say?” Cruz carries Loren’s legacy—the magnificence of ethnicity in womanhood. (But she doesn’t carry the same extent of beauty to her L’Oréal Paris ads, so perhaps the real wonders of the movie are the high heels, the right hair and the perfect application of cosmetics.) Without Cruz, Volver would be middling. Almodóvar’s melody of feminine troubles seems off-key and without much of a hook. It opens promisingly: the camera pans a cemetery in which a load of chismosas are cleaning and polishing graves and on the soundtrack we hear a chorus sounding like something out of Carmen. Following it there’s a hint of magic realism— gossip certified by witnesses that Cruz’s mother (Carmen Maura), presumed killed along with her husband in one of those frequent fires caused by Spain’s on-going draught and dry winds, has returned from the dead to nurse an older relative. Next, in a plot development that’s a joke in Pedro’s 1996 The Flower of My Secret, comes Cruz’s daughter (an Amy Irving clone) killing her beer-swigging would-be father which turns into a Hitchcockian number of body disposal (or is it only Alberto Iglesias’s music insinuating Hitch?), that then evolves into an updated Chinatown imbroglio, about which Cruz’s mother, having sought a justified revenge, must make amends to inquisitive Agustina, a dying repressed lesbian, by supplying answers to what happened to her own vanished adulterous mother. Even with the Pedro touches—a lisping trash talk show hostess, the identifying smell of someone’s farts, the fattie prostie who specializes in making majitos, the too-short delight of Cruz singing—Volver isn’t up to his usual sassy verve. (And you don’t get his reluctance to give his beloved Maura her own cosmetic rebirth, nor why the broads give each other the loudest lipsmacking nonkisses you’ve ever heard.) Coggling from deadpan comedy to deadpan drama, Pedro’s zesty insanity is unaccountably reduced.

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