Pedro Almodovar is an internationally acclaimed Spanish filmmaker best known for complex dramas like 'Talk to Her' and 'Bad Education.' His narratives are groundbreaking, he never passes judgment on his characters, and his fascination with female identity and empowerment is a consistent theme throughout his work. 'Volver,' a 2006 awards darling, is his latest look at the human spirit and the way we cope with death and the unknown.
Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas) are two sisters who tragically lost their parents in a fire when they were young. When their aunt passes away, they attend the funeral and hear a tale from a woman who is supposedly communicating with their dead mother, Irene (Carmen Maura). When they return home, Sole begins seeing and talking to her mother's ghost on a regular basis -- but for some reason the old woman refuses to speak with Raimunda. Meanwhile, after a violent incident at home rips apart any semblence of family normalcy, Raimunda journeys down a dark path of strange revelations that force her to confront her own painful memories. While it may sound like a swirling soap opera, 'Volver' is much more -- the word "dark" hardly describes the oddities and quirks of the script, but it does describe the characters and their inability to communicate with the living.
Almodovar's vision is a surreal tale that has a difficult time remaining focused on any given theme or plotline. It's clearly intentionally dense, but the film seems crowded, and at times it feels as if Almodovar may have bitten off more than he can chew. The ending suffers the most, tossing in a twist that borders on eye-rolling preposterousness. But as much as I kept expecting the film to collapse under its own weight, Almodovar somehow manages to keep it together, delivering an introspective examination of a person's ability to convert pain into strength.
And yet while I appreciated the film's journey, I'm sorry to say that it never completely clicked for me. My wife, on the other hand, adored its thematic explorations and thought I was absolutely crazy for not falling in love with 'Volver.' Don't get me wrong, I would never label 'Volver' a chick flick -- it's too challenging for that simple term -- but it may be the intellectual equivalent.
With all of that said, 'Volver' does deserve all acting awards and nominations that have been handed its way. Cruz comes alive in her native language and all of my questions about her talent instantly vanished. I'm now convinced that her stockiness in prior roles is simply a product of the English language barrier, because she's nothing short of astonishing here. There's a quiet fire behind her eyes at all times as she so inhabits the character of Raimunda. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with the only thing hindering their breezy performances being Almodovar's heavy script, which makes it somewhat difficult to relate to the decisions of each character. But while I never did completely comprehend their thought processes, I did find myself pulled into their strange world.
'Volver' is a jumble of ups and downs that somehow result in a decent flick. Some of Almodovar's script choices may make or break your overall experience, but the familiar adage that says "it's about the journey, not the destination" applies perfectly to 'Volver.' I definitely get the impression that women will connect with the film more deeply than men, but it certainly wasn't a waste of my time. Fans of foreign cinema and more intellectually demanding films will at least have their minds occupied by this multifaceted tale of the living and the dead.
Presented in 1080p utilizing the MPEG-2 codec, this dual layer 50GB Blu-ray disc is a lush and vibrantly colored dream in high definition. Some viewers may notice a hazy softness, but this is an intentional decision made by Almodovar (as he has commented in interviews about 'Volver'). Taste aside, this softness is only slightly perceptible in brightly lit shots and is reminiscent of the visuals during the tall tale segments of 'Big Fish.' Contrast, shadow delineation, and black levels all bolster a rounded depth in the picture that looks quite nice. Colors occasionally drift into extremes, but they're always perfectly rendered without any source noise. There is a light grain present in solid expanses like skies and ceilings, but it wouldn't have caught my attention if I wasn't looking for it.
Skintones seem somewhat boosted and unnaturally smooth at times, but fine texture detail keeps them grounded. Pores, indentations in teeth, and eyelashes are sharply visible and increase the sense of flawed beauty in the actresses. Patterned clothing and wallpaper look great and don't cause any annoying shimmering. Unfortunately, fine object detail leaves a little to be desired and background elements aren't always consistently crisp. However, the transfer is clear and impressive for the most part. Watch Cruz as she moves through any scene in the restaurant. Look at individual strands of hair, the customers, the silverware on the table, the patterns of the napkins, the lighting and the shadows -- everything looks as amazing as it should. All in all, this is near-reference level picture (especially for a lower budgeted foreign film) that stumbles on a only few minor occasions.
I'm not a fan of dubbed films at all -- what's the point of seeing a movie where the actors and actresses aren't able to give their full performances? Thankfully, 'Volver' doesn't waste any effort with an English language track, settling instead on a solid presentation of an uncompressed Spanish PCM surround mix. The disc also includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640 kbps), but the PCM mix has a richer soundscape, crisper vocal tones, and heartier bass.
For the most part, 'Volver' is a quiet, dialogue driven drama that doesn't have much use for an entire soundfield. The front heavy sound design doesn't impress, but it does its job well. There is a welcome ambiance present that matches the environment of each particular scene -- notice the soft differences in the restaurant, Raimunda's house, and her daughter's bedroom. A careful attention to detail anchors each scene in an auditory reality, no matter how surreal the film may drift otherwise. Treble ranges are soft, never clangy, and the few moments that take advantage of the subwoofer are resonant and deep. Balance is good, accuracy is well done, and channel movement is smooth (especially in the ever present wind effects). Unfortunately, the music doesn't add much oomph and the instrumentation often feels muffled because of how low it is prioritized in the sound design. Overall, while it's effective enough for what it is, there isn't much to be too impressed with in this dialogue heavy mix.
The extras on this disc were a big disappointment -- the lengthy list of supplements on the back of the box seemed enticing until I discovered there wasn't much to sink my teeth into. Making matter worse, all of the supplements are ported directly from the standard-def DVD in 480i and look predictably bad.
First up is a subtitled commentary track with Almodovar and Cruz that's way too complimentary, high brow, and flirtatious for my tastes. There was very little to hold my interest and a handful of amusing on-set anecdotes were the only things that made this track worth a listen. "The Making of Volver" was even worse. Instead of an exploration of Almodovar's sets and shooting style, this eight minute would-be featurette is a collection of video montages minus narration or interviews. Cruz decides to sing a song, the speakers swell with music, and absolutely no information is conveyed beyond the visible emotions of the cast and crew shooting 'Volver.'
A series of "Director and Cast Interviews" includes questions with Almodovar (10 minutes), Cruz (5 minutes), and Maura (8 minutes). The chat with Almodovar was the highlight of the entire supplemental package as he focuses on his inspirations as an artist and compares 'Volver' to his previous hit, 'Bad Education' -- a thematic contrast I hadn't previously considered. I would suggest skipping everything aside from the film and this singular interview. Cruz and Maura seem infatuated with the director in their quick chats and don't add much value at all. Maura's interview is slightly interesting in that she details her two decade history with Almodovar and briefly touches on how he's developed as a director.
A "Tribute to Penelope Cruz" is actually a seventeen minute AFI interview recorded on a tipsy camcorder. While Cruz is entertaining, she tends to chatter on, drifting away from anything pertinent and focusing instead on quaint stories of her childhood and career. After watching the film, I was extremely enamored with Penelope Cruz the actress, but returned to reality when confronted with Penelope Cruz the annoying talkshow guest.
Finally, there's an expansive "Photo Gallery" and "Poster Gallery" rounding out the supplements. While the images contained on the disc certainly look good, this has never been the kind of feature that catches my eye or holds my attention at all.
While I can't say 'Volver' totally moved me personally, I found myself enjoying its dark eccentricities and never felt as if I had wasted my time. The performances are simply amazing and the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. Sadly, the technically robust video transfer can't save this overall release from an average audio package and a shallow collection of supplements that just don't do the film justice. Women are more likely to appreciate this film than men, but guys shouldn't avoid the opportunity to watch this challenging piece of cinema from a great director.