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Celebrating the community of women

It's almost universally known that no living filmmaker loves women more than Pedro Almodovar.

He doesn't love them, though, the way husbands love wives or fathers love daughters -- or brothers love sisters. Nor does he love them like an insatiable Don Juan.

His love for women seems to me more like a little boy's love for 1) his mother, and 2) his Legos -- or, in an older era, his model trains.

Almodovar is transfixed by everything they are and do. He loves putting their strongest emotions together to see what happens; and then he loves taking those emotions apart to see how they work.

He's telling stories about characters he loves and hopes audiences love, too. He's not brandishing narrative test tubes like a bored lab tech, which is why the Spanish filmmaker has become one of the most beloved filmmakers the world over. Audiences have, in fact, loved his people the way he himself seems to.

"Volver" is Almodovar's newest and, as with much of his later works, it's one of his best. I always knew what there was to admire in Almodovar, but I wasn't nearly as impressed by his early films as others were. Films like "All About My Mother" and, especially, "Talk to Her" and now "Volver" have brought me over to his side without hesitation.

You will never see a 21st century film that is more palpably female than "Volver." It opens with a team of women incongruously polishing stones in a graveyard -- some of them, their own for some imaginable and thoroughly practical future. Consider that a metaphor for the entire movie.

It's about a community of women -- a mother, her two daughters, a granddaughter and a large female extended family of friends and relatives.

Women work together, laugh raucously together, tell secrets to each other (keeping more than a few well-hidden) and constantly give each other big wet smooches on the cheek when they meet. It's part soap opera, part comedy melodrama, and part magic realism but it's all tied together tightly and beautifully by vivid people who are, in the most literal sense,irresistible.

And chief among them -- the warmblooded center of the movie -- is Penelope Cruz who has tragically wasted too much of her career in gossip columns joined at the hip to Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey and making films that didn't begin to present her as brilliantly as this one does. As a result of "Volver," she is likely to be that extreme Academy Award rarity -- an Oscar nominee for Best Actress in a subtitled film (think Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica's "Two Women" to grasp how very rare it is.)

When this film was previewed at the Toronto Film Festival, much was made by Toronto journalists of both genders of her incredible Lorenesque voluptuousness in "Volver" up to and including her confessions of a posterior prosthetic for the sake of advanced curvature.

You'd have to be blind -- especially if male -- not to see that, but that is not what stays with audiences about Cruz in "Volver." She commands the screen in it, envelops every scene she's in with enough warmth for three ordinary movies. She isn't just registering one strong emotion in many scenes here but rather two or three at the same time -- and all of it with an electric current running through her that jolts the entire movie.

She plays a struggling mother who returns home one day to discover that her drunken lout of a husband has tried to molest her teen daughter and been killed in the process. If you think that's dilemma and soap opera enough for one film, you're just not used to the elaborate Lego narratives of Almodovar movies.

There's more, lots and lots more.

There is, for instance, her estranged and supposedly dead mother (Carmen Maura) who returns after many years and is hidden by her sister. Our heroine figures out that her estranged mother has indeed returned by sniffing the distinctive and well-remembered scents of her flatulence.

That kind of earthy comedy is also very much in the Almodovar Way.

"Volver" in Spanish means "to return," and the whole movie is about things that return -- people, emotions, secrets, scents, you name it.

Once her bum of a husband is stashed away in a convenient nearby freezer, there is also the return of a perfect suitor at her door whom she cannot encourage in any way, lest she reveal that her crummy husband isn't out of town after all but is, instead, a bloodsicle in the nearest freezer.

Add a much-adored ailing aunt who is more than a little bonkers but whose daily welfare is never far from her mind.

Hers is a world full of cares and woes.

People, in fact, care deeply about each other in "Volver," which, of course, generates more than a little emotional mess.

Even those of us who have, in the past, not always been patient with Almodovar's cavalcade of calamities and hyper-emotional declarations find this one to be lovable and delightful from beginning to end.

Emotions run deep in his films these days but there is nothing the slightest bit profound about Almodovar. There never has been and never will be.

Nor is that a bad thing.

There are only the people that he creates and adores and, in "Volver" the actresses who get to inhabit people onscreen as fully and engagingly as they ever will.

And, with Penelope Cruz in "Volver," it isn't really a star that is born (we've seen her for years), it's a great film actress where few of us expected one.



>Movie Review

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura star in Pedro Almodovar's story of two generations of mothers and daughters and their secrets. Rated R, with subtitles, opening Friday in the Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters.

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