In nearly all of her English-speaking movie parts, Spanish actress Penélope Cruz has been little more than a pretty face and a daffy accent. Like many proficient yet hesitant speakers of a foreign language, Cruz always seemed to concentrate more on careful, precise pronunciation of each separate word of English dialogue without considering the necessary fluctuations of tone or speed that skilled actors discover in their lines. By overcompensating for her accent and her own discomfort with English, she initially resisted most attempts at typecasting. Unfortunately, she also sounded far, far dumber than she actually was: Every time she finished speaking, you wanted to give her a cracker.
Send Penélope Cruz back to Spain, though, where she can star in a movie like Pedro Almodóvar's cozy new melodrama Volver, and it's an entirely different story. The Penélope Cruz playing Raimunda, a former child star and struggling mom with some dark secrets, is nothing like the bikini-clad knick-knack clinging to Matthew McConaughey's arms in 2005's Sahara. Speaking her own language once again, Cruz is great fun to watch. Her dark eyes reveal a long-buried intelligence and sense of mischief, and, as her character tries to charm her way out of one jam after another, Cruz inflects her lines with the improvisatory snap of a person thinking a step ahead of everyone else.
Cruz's wit and robust physical presence in Volver evoke memories of Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren, whose earthy humor and transcendent beauty often obliterated their male co-stars. Almodóvar apparently didn't want to take such a risk; there are no major male parts in the film. The director would rather concentrate on these women -- cagey Raimunda, her sweet-natured sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), their serene neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo), and their ghostly mother Irene (Carmen Maura).
Volver, a Spanish word meaning "to return," is a film that grapples with the past on other levels as well. The film takes place in La Mancha, where Almodóvar was raised, and his affection for the region's cultural traditions and superstitions is clearly undiminished. Carmen Maura, once one of Almodóvar's most treasured actresses, returns for a lovely role as a benevolent matriarchal spirit. And he has temporarily abandoned the darker themes and subjects of his recent films in favor of the lighter, comic touch that distinguished some of his films from two decades before.
Almodóvar is no Ernst Lubitsch here, though: One of the biggest, most unexpected laughs turns on a memory of a fart. And within this "cozy" comedic melodrama there is a murder, a ghost, a shocking family scandal or two, and a couple of queasy sexual encounters. Yet these moments pale in comparison to scenes when Irene consoles Agustina or when Raimunda sings a song from her childhood. Such unexpected narrative epiphanies distinguish Volver as a light film of considerable emotional weight.
Opening Friday, January 19th
Studio on the Square