Kimball's Twin Peak
Early in Pedro Almod'var's latest affectionate provocation, Volver, a man is stabbed to death. By his 14-year-old daughter. Because he tried to sexually assault her. And we never actually see any of it.
Oh, we hear about it, as the distraught young Paula (Yohana Cobo) describes to her mother, Raimunda (Penlope Cruz), the terrible events. The swelling, dramatic string music of a daytime soap opera accompanies Paula's tearful confession as she relates the lurid details. Yet despite the high melodrama of the circumstances, the killing itself isn't consequential enough to show on screen. What matters is what follows: Raimunda dutifully applying paper towels and mop to clean up the crime scene, and Raimunda and Paula carrying the body to the place where it can be hidden.
Almod'var has long been a rival to George Cukor as the all-time champion among men directing women, but Volver may be his most loving paean yet to female perseverance. It's a celebration of women watching out for each other, and a study of the consequences when one woman fails to do so.
The film's first image captures the degree to which that kind of care is extended: Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueas) have returned from Madrid to the small town where they grew up for an annual cleaning of their parents' grave. Mom and Dad died in a mysterious fire three years earlier, yet their aging, ailing aunt Ta Paula (Chus Lampreave) maintains that her sister is still with her. The sisters chalk it up to senility until mom Irene (Carmen Maura) appears to Sole as well, and insists that she has unfinished business in this world.
These women all have plenty of business of their own to take care of without worrying about spirits returning from the dead, and nearly all of that business involves looking out for others. Raimunda and Sole's childhood friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) has taken it upon herself to keep an eye on Ta Paula in the absence of any other family members; Raimunda labors at doing laundry and scrubbing floors even when they're not her own, and covered with her husband's blood.
Yet even more than individual acts of caring, Volver portrays with warmth and keen insight a community of women committed to supporting one another in any time of trouble. When Raimunda impulsively agrees to cater lunch for a film crew, she turns to neighbors who supply her with the ingredients she needs for the meal. When there's a death, it is the women who gather to offer comfort to the mourners. Even a suspicious jaunt in the middle of the night isn't too much to ask of a fellow woman, as a neighborhood prostitute (Isabel Daz) agrees to help Raimunda dispose of ... something. The principal sin in this world the one for which Irene must atone is failing in that duty to be there for another woman in need.
This perspective might be viewed as radically reactionary a big round of applause only for ladies who stick to the tasks of cooking, cleaning and nurturing were it not for the characteristic love Almod'var pours out onto his characters. Cruz, Maura, Dueas and the entire cast deliver performances filled with the conviction that nothing is nobler than being there for those who need you.