Pedro Almodóvar has long since joined my personal pantheon of great filmmakers; no one else can tell us stories that touch us, amuse us, sadden us, warm us and teach us about life, all at the same time. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls him "...the benevolent deity of this world...." by which I think he means that, like Prometheus and the gift of fire, Almodóvar gives us with each film both a gift and a challenge. The gift is a love of the world, a vision of serenity and a kind of moral justice; and the challenge is to see everything about ourselves and our lives anew, to understand more than we ever thought we could. His films combine intellect and emotion in ways that you and I would never have thought to put together, and when we see them we emerge better people; we are captivated, as children are, and we learn, and then we are adults.
I tell you all this because Almodóvar's newest film, "Volver" ("to return"), is another step in his astounding march to greatness. It is the story of women (unlike his last two films, "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education," which were about men): two sisters, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), who lives in a small village; and Sole (Lola Dueñas), who lives in Madrid; and Raimunda's 13-year-old daughter Paola, who early in the film is molested by Raimunda's husband Paco. Not to worry; Paola is able to deal firmly and permanently with it, and I do mean permanently. We are in a world where men barely exist; when they do, they are layabouts, they are gone traveling, they are cheats, they are not to be trusted, they barely are worth their biological purpose. In the film's marvelous opening shot, we are in the village cemetery, where the women are carefully polishing their tombstones; it's a regular task and no one thinks twice about it. Death surrounds the living, and no one understands this better than the women of the film.
"Volver" is a gift basket full of surprises. Raimunda and Sole have an aunt Paola, who is getting senile, but when Raimunda invites her to come live with her, she says that she's being well taken care of by her sister, Raimunda and Sole's mother Abuela Irene, who has been dead for years. And aunt Paola has a neighbor, Agustina, who is ill and has unanswered questions of her own. All the women intertwine in ways conventional and startlingly unexpected. How unexpected? Here's one: Abuela Irene comes back from the dead, to live in Sole's apartment.
Let me leave the story there; "Volver" has more than enough events and surprises and reversals to fill three of anyone else's films, and you should allow yourself to enjoy living through them all the first time you see the film. What is even more magical is the way Almodóvar has chosen and directed his actresses. Abuela Irene is played by his old leading lady Carmen Maura, if that's not too dated a phrase, who actually looks like a ghost when she first appears. And Penélope Cruz - perhaps the most beautiful actress in films - has finally gotten the chance to take over a whole movie, in a language she feels comfortable in, and she makes it completely her own. Almodóvar has done an interesting thing here; knowing that it would be a mistake to cast two gorgeous women as the sisters, he has made Raimunda (Cruz) the beauty and her sister Sole the plain one; he does not ask us to choose between two beauties. But Sole has wonderful strengths of her own, as does even young Paola. In what began as a dreadful year for good films. and then turned into at least a decent one, "Volver" reminds us that greatness knows no season. The masterful Almodóvar is still with us.