Only in the last few years has Penélope Cruz blossomed into the beauty on view in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Such a feast for eyes here, most of us want to forget 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 was far away from the looker to come. And why there’s speculation she’s undergone some special effects, 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 at times so hypnotic we’re not listening to or via subtitles reading a single word; her voluptuousness reminds of Sophia Loren 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?” Without Cruz, Volver would be middling. Pedro’s melody of feminine troubles is off-key; opening promisingly, the camera pans a cemetery in which elder 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—reports by witnesses of 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, claim she’s returned from the dead. Next, in a plot development courtesy High Heels and a joke in Pedro’s 1996 The Flower of My Secret, comes Cruz’s daughter killing her beer-swigging would-be father turning into a Hitchcockian number on body disposal—or is it only Alberto Iglesias’s music insinuating Hitch?—necessitating a messy cleanup. (The paper towels and mop wringer aren’t sufficient to do the job.) From there the movie evolves into an updated Chinatown imbroglio about which Maura must make amends to an inquisitive, dying repressed lesbian by supplying answers to what happened to her own vanished adulterous mother. Even with the Pedro touches—a lispy trash talk show hostess, the identifying smell of someone’s farts, the fattie prostie specializing in making majitos, the delight of Cruz lip-synching to Estrella Morente’s singing—Volver lacks his usual sass and vitality controlling the vicarious whims. We don’t get, either, his reluctance to give his beloved Maura a deserving cosmetic rebirth, nor why the broads in general give each other the loudest lipsmacking nonkisses ever heard. Seems easier for him to ignore the detailing and just push the Cruz control button.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.