Men are literally disposable in Pedro Almodovar's Volver. But the film, particularly for fans of the gynophilic, flamboyantly color-coordinating maker of loco melodramas, is essential. The title translates as Coming Back — as in “back from the dead,” referring to the matter-of-fact resurrection of Irene (Carmen Maura), an old grandmother who refuses to let her own demise get in the way of unresolved family matters. Always an admirer of vintage Hollywood, the Spanish director has offhandedly referred to the new movie as being a throwback to Arsenic and Old Lace, itself a casual nod to the uncanny persistence of the past.
For Almodovar, Volver represents a return of other sorts as well: to his childhood home of La Mancha, to lighter material after his elaborately Hitchcockian Bad Education, and to All About My Mother's Penelope Cruz, who, cast here as Irene's catering daughter Raimunda, delivers her most loose-limbed and endearing performance. In fact, the film's playful ode to female resilience owes enormously to the dynamic ensemble work of five gifted comediennes, all deserving of their special award at Cannes. Fair warning: If you're not terribly fond of women, you probably shouldn't see Volver, a movie wherein mere mortality doesn't stop mothers from loudly smooching their daughters' cheeks, a breezy comedy in which a seemingly typical male gets stabbed, stuffed into a fridge, and buried at swamp's edge. Not amused? Almodovar and his fans would be reasonably delighted to go about their business without you.
Suitably for a film that celebrates the supernatural strength of women's work, Volver opens on the image of ladies scrubbing headstones in a windswept cemetery — as if to suggest that their scrupulous care of the departed will bring material benefits in this life and maybe the next. Almodovar gets a gentle kick out of mixing the extraordinary and the everyday, putting otherworldly elements in the most familiar of contexts: Maura's reincarnated Irene is a bemused granny with stringy hair and a slightly ratty turquoise shawl; her first appearance, startling but hardly flabbergasting her daughter Soledad (Lola Dueñas), is on a staircase in the middle of the afternoon. Later she shows up in the trunk of Sole's car.
Duenas, as a Madrid hairdresser with the straightest bangs on the block, adorably evokes the niña next door, whereas Cruz, even in proletarian costume, playing protective mother to fragile teen Paula (Yohana Cobo), inevitably signifies International Movie Star. Almodovar tailors Volver to Cruz's specifications, using her cleavage as the dominant element of countless shots and temporarily halting the narrative so that she can enjoy belting out a musical number that wouldn't look out of place in a Doris Day vehicle. The reel flirts freely with the real: Almodovar has also name-dropped the eternal Mildred Pierce, though the fate of Paula's lazy, lecherous stepfather, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), more closely resembles that of Johnny Stompanato, legendarily carved up in 1958 by Lana Turner's 14-year-old kid Cheryl.
Red, in every conceivable shade, is, not surprisingly, a key color in Volver, a movie about the towering virtues of high heels and the indomitable power of good old 35 mm celluloid. (David Lynch may have gone digital, but this director never will.) About a half-hour into the film, Almodovar's effortlessly gorgeous shot of blood saturating two sheets of paper towel — you'd think you were watching time-lapse images of a rose in bloom — momentarily suggests a tonal shift for the entire movie, white turning to a crimson so deep it's practically noir. Channeling Hitchcock even in this, the slightest work of his 16-film career, Almodovar isn't what he used to be (who is?), but he's a master of the medium nevertheless, deploying color and light and shadow not merely to express emotions but also to tap into ours, directing the blood flow of the audience as much as he directs the movie.
Volver could veer anywhere from that sopping towel, so complete is Almodovar's control of the mood, but it's no disappointment that the movie remains in a relatively low-key register. With a corpse on ice and in need of burying, Cruz's caterer is suddenly, absurdly saddled with 30 extra mouths to feed, and it's hardly a burden: In a single shot, Almodovar follows Raimunda up the road as she meets one girlfriend and then another, easily enlisting them to supply pork and some sausages. The meatball in the fridge can be dealt with later.