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Leave it to Pedro Almodóvar to turn cheap costume jewelry into crown jewels. Using a story ripped from the pages of midday television soap operas, Volver (Spanish for: to return) lacks the spontaneous combustion of outrageous wit and style the director is best known for but reveals a filmmaker who knows how to play to his audience.

As the title suggests, the film is a (re)visitation to the director's favorite themes: the unbreakable bond of motherhood, maternal conflict and melodrama. There's little doubt that Almodovar has both a great love for and understanding of women — his appreciation may be unmatched on screen — but Volver is particularly notable for its almost complete absence of men. Once again, he directs his gaze to the lives of independent and idiosyncratic women who struggle with their urban environs and each other.

Which doesn't mean the film is an estrogen-fest of hugs and tears. There's plenty of lust, murder and deceit to go around — but it's the women who stuff the corpse in a freezer then dispose of the body in a shallow grave.

Described by the director as a blend of Mildred Pierce and Arsenic and Old Lace, the story follows three generations of Spanish women coping with death and deception. Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) find their lives upended after the sudden death of a senile old aunt. A childhood friend stricken with cancer begins to question the mysterious fire that killed the girl's parents; Raimunda's deadbeat husband is unexpectedly murdered, and — most alarmingly — Sole is visited by her mother's ghost. Nothing, of course, is as it seems, as family secrets start to entangle every twist of the plot.

The conflicts and contrivances unspool at a leisurely pace and even the most overheated moments soft-pedal the director's trademark flamboyance. The film begins mischievously, casually teasing the audience with its mysteries before spinning them into a complex web of masterfully crafted clichés.

But some of Almodóvar's fans may find his poignant, matter-of-fact tone a bit too restrained. Volver shows none of the transgressive elements of his earlier work or the risk-taking gestures of recent efforts like Talk To Her. Still, the relaxed sentimentality works well at masking the film's myriad misdirections and its darker turns are handled with the director's trademark irreverent wit.

As he did with Bad Education, the Spanish director continues to pay tribute to Hitchcock, understanding that beneath the thrills, twists and macabre sense of humor, the master had a similarly deep love for melodrama. Alberto Iglesias' score recalls the compositions of Hitchcock favorite Bernard Hermann and many of Volver's shots are composed as if it were a work of noir rather than a low-key drama of maternal reconciliation.

The cast, as always in his films, is terrific but the standout is Cruz. Feisty but vulnerable, she presents a complex and believably fierce woman who seizes control of the mundane and the extraordinary with equal conviction and pragmatism. It's a superbly understated performance that proves the actress is more than just another exotic beauty. If there's a complaint with the other women, it's in the remoteness of their characters. They're small moons to Cruz's earthly charms. Even Almodóvar, for all his talents, cannot compensate for underwritten roles.

By Volver's end, you realize its title refers to more than just the director's passions; it makes the case that what goes around comes around. Its tough women survive a world filled with betrayal, sexual abuse and shame by mending torn relationships with forgiveness, modesty and uncompromising love. Almodovar's film may not take any big risks or land an emotional knockout, but he does deliver two hours of satisfying intrigue, sentiment and humor.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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