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Wednesday, November 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Volver": Cruz at her finest

Seattle Times movie critic

Opens today

Movie review 4 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Volver," with Penlope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave. Written and directed by Pedro Almodvar. 120 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content and language. Egyptian.

Penélope Cruz is almost absurdly beautiful in Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver"; with her hair teased up and her eyes black-rimmed, she confidently totters through the movie in high heels and tight skirts, as if perfuming it with her presence. She is Raimunda, a wife and fiercely protective mother in a small Spanish town, and she's a powerhouse, washing dishes and preparing food and mopping up after an inconvenient corpse with a fiery energy. The camera revels in her curves, her smile, her straight-ahead walk. When she croons a song at a party she seems almost unreal; an earth mother not of this earth.

It's Cruz's finest screen performance, and it's the warm center of Almodóvar's film, a mother/daughter saga that flirts with ghost story and melodrama, finally settling on a gentle note of forgiveness.

After telling stories of men in his last few films ("Bad Education," "Talk to Her"), Almodóvar here revels in the world of women, returning to the territory of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "All About My Mother." Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) murmur together, speaking in a shorthand of sisterhood, punctuated by smacking kisses of greeting and farewell. Problems are solved by enlisting the help of female neighbors; unexpected splotches of blood (yes, that corpse again) are dismissed to questioning eyes as "women's troubles."

Raimunda's busy, troubled life is interrupted by something entirely unexpected: the mysterious arrival of her mother (Carmen Maura), who died long ago in a fire. Whether she is a ghost or not doesn't seem to matter, for a while; the fact is that she has returned, for complicated reasons. "I was very lonely," she tells her granddaughter. ("Volver," the film's Spanish title, means "to return"; it's also the title of the song Raimunda sings.) The mother is from a village where the wind constantly blows, where the residents matter-of-factly accept the dead along with the living. And she's seeking something in return from Raimunda: understanding, for a past that can't be forgotten.

Almodóvar drenches the movie, as is his fashion, in wild splotches of primary colors, and heightens the drama by adding swirling, Bernard Herrmann-esque music (by Alberto Iglesias). And while it's difficult to look away from Cruz, the other actresses create a richly textured chorus. Sad-eyed Sole, who operates a hairdressing salon in her modest home, lives in her more vivid sister's shadow. But she has fewer defenses than Raimunda, and Dueñas gives her a wide-eyed, earnest simplicity. Agustina rivals Raimunda in fierceness; Portillo spits out her lines in a rushing river of words. And Maura, as the mother, has a dry delivery and an impish smile; though haunted by memories, she's rather enjoying being an enigma.

The result is intoxicating; a free-spinning story that's by its end enormously satisfying, creating its own kind of magic.

As the melancholy wind continues to gust through the village, secrets blow away as well; these mothers and daughters reveal their true selves to each other, lit by love.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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