Pedro Almodóvar gets back in touch with his feminine side in Volver, the Spanish helmer's most femme fable since 1999's All About My Mother. One of that film's stars, Penélope Cruz, here takes centre stage as a domestic drudge caught up in family strife - including the return of her supposedly dead mother (Almodóvar veteran Carmen Maura). Despite dwelling on death, there's plenty of life in this mix of tears and laughter, although the style's subdued compared with the writer/director's earlier melodramas.
Mind you, Mardi Gras looks subdued next to the flamboyant likes of Dark Habits, Matador or Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, the latter marking Maura's last gig with Pedro. Here, she strikes an ambiguous, almost unrecognisable figure as Irene, who's back from the grave to look after her ailing sister (Chus Lampreave). Meanwhile, Irene's second-born Raimunda (Cruz) has a corpse to worry about when her abusive, workshy husband (Antonio de la Torre) is stabbed to death by teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo).
"THE HEARTSTRING-PULLING HITS THE MARK"
Attempting to fuse the classic noir of Mildred Pierce with the kitchen-sink whimsy of the director's own What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Volver (which means 'to come back') suffers from plot implausibilities and uneven characterisation (Paula ends up a sidelined cipher). But the humour and the heartstring-pulling hit the mark, as do most of the cast, not least Cruz. Sporting a prosthetic posterior, she's one hot mama. But never mind the buttocks: it's the pitch-perfect blend of pride and vulnerability, spirit and sadness that really makes her performance stand out.
In Spanish with English subtitles.