With any Pedro Almodovar film one immediately knows that women will play the central roles and suffer greatly for it. No other contemporary director has fastiduously stuck with this stern feminine dissection nor has been as successful in wowing critics and viewers alike with the bareness and honesty such characters expose. 'Volver' continues along this vein but tries to incorporate a slightly stronger male presence to initially challenge the hegemony of the female issues involved.
It's a fascinating idea but such a pity that as soon as the film sets up the masculine complexity as inescapable, it shuts it out. Male characters tend to be bad or distant memories for the women Almodovar explores and he stalls greatly with this issue because there proves to be no traction for them outside of stereotype. Paco (Antonio de la Torre) proves to be endemic of this atypical maleness but the odd thing is that the film doesn't even show him having a history of vice. He is stabbed to death after drunkenly trying to abuse his daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) but it feels as if Almodovar is only copping out to eliminate him early in order to sink his direction into more familiar territory. Even though his dead body on the kitchen floor places him firmly in the film, 'Volver' never sufficiently implicates Paco beyond his wife's, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) vengeance once she finds out what he was trying to do. Things run smoothly after his body is disposed of but that 'Volver' blindly tries to carry on without properly verifying him proves to be no justification. Almodovar compacts this weakness by having Raimunda tell Paula that he really wasn't her father, only to clamp up on the identity of the true paternal father. That none of the characters even really miss Paco or any of his family members show up to inquire about him proves confounding as well.
Almodovar's genius however lies in the many layers of complexity and emotional distress he captures from his actresses. His themes are always the same but the cohesion is impressive. Most of the women in 'Volver' have continually worked with him so that enhances the witty, tough dialogue that takes place. Penelope Cruz impresses as Raimunda, a much fuller role than the previous ones she's done with him and it demands her to explore levels of pessimism as well as finding time to make room for everyone around her. The film focuses on her and the relationships she has with the other characters. She is a woman struggling to keep sane. Her parents have died in a mysterious fire and she is beset by secrets. Paula unknowingly touches on this shady past when she tells Raimunda what happened with Paco. Raimunda's reaction underlines the sharp Almodovar divide between men and women. After seeing Paco's body in the kitchen, Raimunda is anguished for all of five seconds before she starts to mop up his drying blood and she tells Paula that is wasn't her fault almost absentmindedly.
When her aunt dies however, we are treated to quite the spectacle of mourners. Raimunda is unable to go to the funeral because she has to deal with men: she must dispose of Paco's body and see to the movie director whose crew she is catering lunch for. She does both, keeping both activities fairly secret between herself and Paula. When the film exposes her character from this angle, 'Volver' flounders for believability and consistency. When it concentrates on family, Raimunda's mental capacity manages to break down its self-inflicted difficulties. The film uses secrets as the main tool for showing the strain on its characters. Sole (Lola Duenas), Raimunda's sister, is afraid to tell her that their mother is back from the grave and appearing to a few selective people. Augustina, a helper of her aunt, confirms this suspicion but Raimunda brushes it aside. When confirmation of her father's affair hits however she is downright indignant. Raimunda hides the fact of her abuse by her father which turned her against her mother, so Irene's return fromn the dead fuels a desperate type of resentment.
It's a lot of issues to take on for one film but once Irene (Carmen Maura, in a simply divine performance) takes control it becomes even more fascinating to watch. She comes to serve different purposes upon her return but given a second chance to correct the indifference of her relationship with Raimunda, she holds back. Raimunda's skepticism erodes quicker than expected and the strain of such freely-given emotion leaves Irene completely overwhelmed. She had chosen to send her to live with her father and kept Sole instead, so the mother-daughter bond had dwindled even before her disappearance. When Raimunda turns up in the last scene with tears in her eyes, all past errors come running back to Irene and the fear of letting her daughter down again grips her. Both women stand, emotionally wounded because of the other but are simply not prepared for the moment. Or simply not equipped to handle their feelings for each other. Irene tells Raimunda, as calmly as she can, that after she cares for Augustina's battle with cancer they'll be able to heal some of their rifts. Raimunda dabs at her face and recedes into the night, full of hope and wanting to believe her mother. Though the film ends before further exploration, it's a telling indication on the deficiency of Irene's character and the trickle-down effect it has had on Raimunda who already sees this plainly in Paula, both of whom surely can't help but think they are about to be lost to Irene yet again.