Susan Granger reviews “Volver”

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Reunited with Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar for the third time, Penelope Cruz delivers a volatile, earthy, uncompromising performance in this loosely autobiographical surrealistic black comedy about an extended family of women in Madrid.

Raimunda (Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) are dutiful daughters, faithfully cleaning their parents’ and grandparents’ graves in La Mancha cemetery and visiting their elderly, senile aunt (Chus Lampreave). Raimunda, who is married to worthless Paco (Antonio de la Torre), works two jobs to support her 14 year-old daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), whom Paco tries to rape. In self-defense, the teenager kills him. Resourceful Raimunda dumps Paco’s body in the freezer of a nearby restaurant that’s for sale. That’s where she’s contracted with a visiting film crew to cater lunches while the owner’s out of town. Meanwhile, Sole comes to believe that their late mother (Carmen Maura) is not dead, insisting she’s come back – seemingly supernatural – with sordid secrets to reveal, some involving Augustina (Blanca Portillo), a family friend who is dying of inoperable cancer.

Obviously influenced by Italian neo-realism, Almodovar accurately describes this convoluted tale as a cross between “Mildred Pierce” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” – to which I’d add a bit of soap opera thrown in. The title means “to return” in Spanish.

Almodovar’s prevalent themes of sex, religion and death are best characterized by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine’s deceptively subtle shot of voluptuous Penelope Cruz leaning over a kitchen sink, washing a bloody kitchen knife with a crufix hanging around her neck. In Spanish with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Volver” is a warm, whimsical 8. While superstitious, these three generations of women are ingenious, contriving clever solutions to life’s most perplexing problems.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.