Pedro Almodóvar's new film is quirky, confident, all about women, and probably satisfying if you're of a mind to like the sort of thing that he does. Generally, I'm not, and Volver, which means "to return," doesn't change my mind.
His movies are excellent film-school teaching tools, very discussable and exegetic. He always begins well, with a story that seems to be worth telling. But then his overwhelming passion for genre and melodrama takes over, and his work often becomes more of an exercise in his own ingenuity than in the lives of its characters.
After watching Volver for a while, all you can really do is sit back and wonder what will happen next, not why it will happen or what it means apart from the obvious. Its concept is either too high or too low, and its last half hour -- which should have been its first half hour -- is either interminable or lovely.
Volver revolves around a family of city women who have, for one reason or another, been left without their men. Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is married to an hirsute jerk and has a 14-year-old daughter, Paula. Her older sister Sole hasn't seen her husband in two years and cuts women's hair in her home. Their mother, Irene (the splendid Carmen Maura, gorgeously frumpy), along with their father, died four years ago in a fire in the superstitious village where they grew up. But their dying old Aunt Paula still lives there, and she claims that Irene's ghost is caring for her.
To make a long story short, she is, and when Aunt Paula dies, Irene goes to live with the dour Sole, who's happy to see her. But Irene doesn't want Raimunda to know she's still walking the earth because -- in the modern parlance -- they have issues.
This would all be enough, except that when Raimunda's husband tries to have sex with young Paula, she kills him, and Raimunda stashes the body in a freezer. There's also the cancer-stricken neighbor from back home whose missing mother may have been mixed up in Irene's death. And so on, until the last 30 minutes, when all is revealed and reconciled.
The melodrama, soap opera, mystery, ghost story, situation comedy and television parody of Volver all blend effortlessly into another version of Almodóvar's habitual repertoire. His direction is cozily familiar: He can frame a beautiful shot, but mostly, his camera stalks people, or just observes them. He seems to think he's heralding the difficult lives of women forced to cohabit the world of cheating, beating, incestuous men. But Volver is too emotionally uninvolving, too reminiscent of Lifetime television, and much too idiosyncratic to support such stark realism. (The closing titles are a kaleidoscopic tribute to Hitchcock's Psycho.) You either get it or you don't, although either way, there's really not all that much to get. In Spanish, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Jan. 19.