Pleasure Cruz

No woman on the verge, Penelope Cruz evokes the admirable, problem-solving protagonists of 1950s Hollywood tearjerkers in the Spanish-language film.
No woman on the verge, Penelope Cruz evokes the admirable, problem-solving protagonists of 1950s Hollywood tearjerkers in the Spanish-language film. (By Emilio Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni/el Deseo -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

For her role in "Volver," Penelope Cruz strapped on a prosthetic derriere to enhance her Mediterranean assets. But as the beleaguered Madrid homemaker at the center of this warmly seductive movie, she gives us something finer to savor -- call it inner voluptuousness.

We know Cruz's external voluptuousness only too well. As soon as the respected Spanish actress arrived in Hollywood, it became her leading commodity -- first as Tom Cruise's arm candy, then as Hollywood's go-to sexy foreigner. Her brown eyes and lispy lilt were the only things worth noting about her so-so performances in "Vanilla Sky" and "Blow." She seemed to have hit the Euro-babe glass ceiling.

As "Volver" makes radiantly clear, Cruz, 32, can hold an audience's attention through her acting. All she apparently needed was a return to a Spanish-language role. Luckily, filmmaker Pedro Almodovar -- who never met a female character, real or in drag, he didn't love -- provides that opportunity. As Raimunda, an airport cleaner whose quiet heroics take place at home, she's a subtle revelation. And we remember what we loved about her in films such as 1992's "Belle Epoque" and 1997's "Abre los Ojos": not just God-given beauty but her canny animation of it.

Her face registers every heartbreak, irritation and disappointment. Her mascara-lined eyes seem perpetually shiny -- as if she were the Spanish equivalent of Roy Lichtenstein's teary, comic book women, though we learn she's no crybaby. We're drawn to this resolute problem solver, who recalls the stoic housewives of such 1950s Hollywood tearjerkers as "All That Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life." In those classics, the women's seemingly mundane, melodramatic ordeals were symbolic of deeper issues in society -- sexism, racism and classism -- and the characters' determination attained a sort of transcendental glory. In "Volver," Raimunda's courage is just as compelling as she contends with murder, adultery, incest and -- in Almodovar's anything-goes universe -- beyond-the-grave visits from her dearly departed mother (Carmen Maura).

First-time viewers of Almodovar's films may initially scratch their heads over a film that interweaves the farcical with the affecting, the comic with the disturbing, and ghostly elements with Hitchcockian melodrama. Aficionados of his peripatetic style, however, will note a maturation from his early films (so politically and sexually provocative, so flamboyant and cavalier) to this richer, more thoughtful amalgam of moods and textures. That deeper sensibility has marked more recent offerings such as "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education," in which the Spanish director treats controversial content with a new subtlety and restraint. Where audiences once left Almodóvar's movies giggling and shaking their heads in disbelief (a nun addicted to heroin?), they now emerge deeply moved.

There's another sea change in "Volver": Instead of the transvestite characters that were such familiar standbys in so many of Almodóvar's older movies, we get women. Lots of them. With the exception of Raimunda's shiftless husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and a few minor characters, the cast of "Volver" is entirely female and, we'd like to emphasize, uniformly terrific. (The women collectively took the top acting prize at Cannes this year; Almodóvar's script was also a winner.)

And among them, he creates a charming, even profound intimacy -- what might have been dismissed as silly girl stuff attains enormous heft. Unspoken secrets between Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) suddenly feel as foreboding as thunderheads, and the machine-gun kisses that neighborhood friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo) plants on everyone's cheeks are not only amusing, they're testament to her enormous capacity for love. Almodovar's recently discovered gentle touch continues, too: Look beneath the movie's playfully macabre surface and you'll find a paean to household togetherness, inner resilience and it-takes-a-village camaraderie, as Raimunda enlists everyone she knows to help her quickly rustle up a banquet for about two dozen hungry guests.

But before anyone mourns the demise of Madrid's resident provocateur, let it be said: Almodovar is still one naughty fella. Even in the most poignant scenes, his camera still seeks out gratuitous shots of ample cleavage and well-rounded cabooses.

This all makes for a deeply entertaining experience that engages our hearts as well as our funny bones. And it's gratifying to see Cruz (who had supporting roles in Almodovar's "Live Flesh" and "All About My Mother") finally get her due. Whether she's tearfully enduring her husband's unwanted advances in bed or breaking spontaneously into the title tune, a passionate flamenco-style number about unexpected encounters with the past, she's always in full song -- shattering not wineglasses but preconceptions.

Volver (121 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, sexual scenes, drug use and mature themes.

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