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July 31, 2007

There I go, reckoning I’m some big cinephile type person, and I’ve never seen a Pedro Almodóvar film.

Well, the Cambridge Film Festival – currently in its biggest and best year – provided the perfect opportunity to put this right by showing the Spanish director’s latest offering Volver (‘to return’) as one of its showpiece premieres.

Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) lives in tiny apartment in Madrid with her teenage daughter Paula and her dreadful boorish husband Paco (who is always drunk, recently unemployed, and has a sinister interest in the young girl). Raimunda’s sister Sole is separated and works illegally as a hairstylist, taking in paying customers in her house. The film begins with the two sisters visiting their birth village on the vast, windy, La Mancha plateau, tending the grave of their parents who died several years previously in a fire. In the village remains their aunt, also called Paula, who talks about her sister Irene, mother of the two, as if she is still alive.

The classic opening cadences of the soap opera setting are judged to perfection and you might initially think that what we have here is the springboard for a meaty family saga. And we do, but things take two massively unexpected turns.

First, the young Paula stabs and kills Paco after he makes a drunken pass at her and, second, the old Paula dies and Sole has to travel out to the village to attend the funeral. It’s there – while Raimunda is struggling to dispose of the rapidly rigor-affected stiffening stiff of Paco – that, to her considerable surprise, Sole meets her dead Mum, who cadges a lift back to Madrid in the boot of her car. Mum, Irene, is keen to return to her home town to resolve the situations she couldn’t deal with during her life. Despite the bizarre nature of her re-appearance, Irene’s ghost becomes a comfort to her daughters and grandchild and the difficulties they’ve all had to endure are gradually addressed.

The movie, of course, is about redemption, about love, and most of all about the abiding bonds that women in seemingly impossible situations develop with other women. The men in Volver are either ineffective, brutish or peripheral, and it’s Cruz, Carmen Maura (Irene) and Lola Dueñas (Sole) who you watch with growing admiration. By the time you’re halfway through and Raimunda is captivating her local restaurant with a heartbreaking song (I didn’t understand a word, but estupendo, girl!) you’re with them fully and hope they embrace the success that has so far eluded them.

This is soap opera, I guess, but refined, very sophisticated and very very funny soap opera. The denouement is gradual and organic and makes sense out of everything, changes everything, but without ruining the journey you’ve embarked upon (even though, with the slightest twinge of regret, it finally grounds every event in cold hard reality). But that’s an awfully tiny quibble, especially when you get to see a real, actual, celluloid goddess (the way they used to make ’em) crackling away up there on the screen like a beacon. Cruz shines like the genuine star she is, you just can’t take your eyes off her. Sheesh, I thought Naomi Watts shone, but that’s nothing. Cruz has all the wattage here, she’s radiant, irresistable, full of light and fury, deep and wonderful, incredible to watch. You can’t look away from her for a moment.

Go and see it for the laughs, go and see it for the bold story, go and see it just for Cruz if you want, but go and see it. You won’t be disappointed.

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