Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) has taken her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) to the grave of her mother, as is traditional in this part of Spain, to clean it up as the region of La Mancha is so windy there's a lot of dust and debris that the tombs get covered in. They meet friend of the family Augustina (Blanca Portillo) there, chat about her missing mother, gone these past few years from about the time Raimunda's parents died in a fire, and then it's on to the home of the elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), who claims that she sees the mother every day and that she helps her out - well that can't be true, can it?
Pedro Almodóvar made what he considered one of his most personal films in Volver, in the process offering his star Cruz one of her best roles and an Oscar nomination into the bargain. His common theme of women drawing together in the face of male bad behaviour, and finding those bonds so much more meaningful than those with the men, was well to the fore, so much so that it was tempting to observe that there was little here that you could not have gleaned from previous works from this writer and director. Nevertheless, it was highly praised and welcomed by his fans as one of his most accomplished efforts.
The plot could have been mistaken for soap opera in other, less assured hands, and if you were not as forgiving of the teary sisterhood sentimentality as the Almodóvar aficionados you might find nigh on two hours of glamorous suffering hard to take. Yet it was still in the spirit of, say Douglas Sirk or indeed Anna Magnani movies (as one character watches on television near the end) far more than it was in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, whose name was invoked when audiences saw the first half hour. This was because that opening quarter involved a dead body and guilt that must be covered up even though the reason the body was dead was down to self defence rather than malice.
What happens is that the teenage Paula has started to be lusted after by her deadbeat father, except he's not her father he's simply Raimunda's husband who married her after she had had her baby. As she says, no way does this justify that he tries to rape the girl, and he ends up dead on the kitchen floor with a carving knife in him for his trouble, something that Almodóvar doesn't have much of a problem with outside of the obvious one: what to do with the body? Going to the police doesn't appear to have crossed Raimunda's mind, as she feels she needs to bear the brunt of her traumatised daughter's conscience, and the corpse ends up locked in the freezer of the restaurant she helps to run. If you think that's all there is to Volver, think again.
Remember all that business with Raimunda's parents dying in the fire and Augustina's mother disappearing around the same point? Well, that all comes back to haunt her too, as it turns out when Aunt Paula passes away, she was telling the truth about Raimunda's mother staying with her. She is still alive, not that she wants her daughters to know, but comes to Sole one day as the funeral is taking place and makes peace with her, not quite making it clear she's not a ghost, although the film plays around with these kind of expectations with a refreshing lightness of touch. How to break the news to her other child, that's the question, and the whole issue of how much of a burden it is to be a woman - there's barely two significant males in the cast, and one of those is the dodgy husband, is laid on pretty thick. If this gets too much, then there are some very funny moments to enjoy, and the cast is all round excellent, especially the resilient Cruz, so why does it feel oddly slight? Music by Alberto Iglesias.