Volver is a mesmerizing tour de force and a unique journey into the heart and soul of a small Spanish town in which men are conspicuously absent and women form captivating bonds to confront distressing memories from the past and impassioned incidents from the present. It is a sensationally moving and captivating experience, and serves as a perfect exemplar of top-notch alternative filmmaking.
Helmed with passion by veteran writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, whose Talk to Her and Bad Education were warmly received by critics, Volver chronicles the link between three generations of women trying to fight their way through mistrust, abuse, infidelity and the fear of a lonely death. At first, we are introduced to Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), hard-working mother to a teenage daughter and loyal wife to a lazy drunk, and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), who runs an illegal hairdressing salon in her apartment. It's been four years now since they lost their parents in a tragic fire, but the neighbors in their hometown of La Mancha still speak of Raimunda and Sole's mother as if she were still alive. So to them, it's no real surprise when their mother suddenly "appears" to take care of some unfinished business.
Throughout it all, director Pedro Almodóvar does a phenomenal job at dodging formulaic dialogue and corny situations, while combining tragedy with dark comedy to create an unconventional melodrama. Volver is as subtle as a movie of this genre can get, and presents its spectators with an array of memorable truths about the challenges of everyday life. Whether it involves a mother who struggles not to make the mistake to raise her daughter the same way she was raised, a broken-hearted wife striving for forgiveness, or a cancer patient terrified to face a lonesome death, each of the unique characters depicted in the film encourages us spectators to explore our own past and present in an attempt to wipe out persistent regrets and make the best of what awaits us.
The strongest asset of Volver is undoubtedly its ensemble cast. In the role of Raimunda, Penélope Cruz delivers her most sophisticated performance yet. No matter how saccharine the scene, she continuously lights up the screen and beautifully manifests the most intimate emotions, making it a pleasure for us to watch her cry, smile, yell or sing. Carmen Maura (as the mother) and Lola Dueñas fail to come across as strong as Cruz, but they certainly master their roles and share a wonderful chemistry. As expected, the tremendous job done by the cast was rewarded at the 2006 Cannes Film festival, where for the first time ever, the trophy for best actress was handed out to an entire female ensemble cast.
With Volver, Pedro Almodóvar has crafted yet another truly enthralling and emotional drama that comprises enough comedic scenes to lift the film's overall melancholic tone and remember its audience that facing tragedies with positive thought is the best formula to enjoy life to the fullest extent.
Volver received extraordinary critical acclaim and picked up an array of awards at major film festivals around the world, but the DVD is likely to face a bunch of negative responses. On this disc, quantity defeats quality, which is not only upsetting hardcore Almodóvar fans, but also disappoints everyone on the lookout for additional information about the feature film.
The only featurette on the disc is "Making of Volver," an eight-minute segment that offers a remarkably weak look behind the scenes. Sad to say, the only interesting thing we learn about the production of the movie is that the filmmakers built entire sets to shoot the interior scenes. But the major downside of this piece is that the footage is accompanied by music only, without any commentaries or interviews. We do see Pedro Almodóvar giving directions and talking to his actresses, but we don't hear anything. Such an approach is not only boring to watch, but it also completely keeps the viewers in the dark about how Volver was shot.
Also featured on the disc are interviews with director Pedro Almodóvar and actresses Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura. My first complaint on these three segments is the poor quality of the sound. The interviewer holds no microphone, which makes it incredibly hard to understand her questions. Penélope Cruz mostly gives really short answers that don't reveal much about the movie itself. As for Carmen Maura, she doesn't even understand all the questions properly, and easily diverts from the subject. Almodóvar seems to be the only one focusing, as he sheds some light on the complexity of the core characters and in what ways the central themes of the movie reflect parts of his childhood.
The best of the specials is a 10-minute in-depth conversation between film critic Kenneth Turan and Penélope Cruz before the screening of Volver at the 2006 AFI Fest. Turan's questions are subtle and sharp, and Cruz offers surprisingly elaborate answers. Entitled, "A Tribute to Penélope Cruz," this segment is particularly interesting because it reveals much about her childhood and early career, explains her relationship to Pedro, but also focuses on the complexity of her role as single mother Raimunda in the movie.
The bonus material also includes a poster gallery and a impressive photo gallery that lets you scroll through 72 high-res movie stills and promotional photographs. The commentary by Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz is in Spanish and subtitled, and in my opinion a definite must. He lists the most important details to look out for in many crucial scenes, and how they are set up. Cruz doesn't get to talk very much but occasionally steps in to comment on her performance.
The special features section on the Volver DVD lies far below the splendor of the movie, but the disc is nonetheless a must-have, if only for the tremendously sophisticated performances of the ensemble cast. Strangely enough, it's the feature film itself that makes this DVD worth every penny.