Man of La Mancha

Almodovar's 'Volver' mines his rural roots and unites tastes

MADRID — March 10, the Teatro Auditorio, Puertollano, a country town on La Mancha’s dusty plain, 25 miles from Pedro Almodovar’s birthplace. The world premiere of his latest film, “Volver.” Spruced up in their Sunday best, the townsfolk chant “Pedro, Pedro” like soccer supporters as he finally makes the red carpet.

Amid the heady home hoopla, Jose Maria Barreda, president of Castille-La Mancha, tries for perspective. “Today, Puertollano is a key cultural reference for Spain, Europe, I’d say the world.” And by now, Europe and the world will have passed judgment on “Volver” at Cannes.

Their sentence may be swayed by several factors. “Volver,” as it title implies, marks a “return” to Almodovar’s rural roots, the world of his mother and a leitmotif: women’s solidarity (think “All About My Mother”).

But the homecoming also signals departures, and “Volver’s” local observances may be partially lost in translation. Naturally, “Volver” contains Almodovar hallmarks: it genre-hops, genre-blends, and works one genre groove for a while.

There’s Hitchcock hokum as Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) lumps around her husband’s cadaver; screwball drama when her mother’s ghost (Carmen Maura) bunks up at sister Sole’s place, passing herself off as Russian. Saddled with a prosthetic bottom, Cruz achieves the undulating sashay of Italian neo-realist heroines and echoes their makeshift ends-meeting ingenuity.

Yet, for Almodovar, “Volver” draws some lines. Almodovar is usually dismissed out of hand by Spain’s starched right. But “Volver” has wowed left, right and center. A Good Friday screening at Madrid’s Cid Campeador included an animated contingent of 65-plus old dears.

Almodovar traditionally divides Spanish critics; “Volver” united them in praise. “Excellent, deep, complex,” opined “El Mundo’s” Carlos Boyero, an inveterate Almodovar naysayer. Bowing March 17, pic was Almodovar’s second-biggest B.O. hit in Spain behind “All About My Mother” (E10 million; $12.2 million), tracking at $10.7 million, but still counting.

“Volver” lacks Almodovar’s florid visuals and arresting setups. Rather than pop art and pastels, the colors are aridly earthen, i.e. the clunky industrial dyes of the village women’s cardigans. Shadows replace darkness.

Almodovar is a guarded extrovert. In interviews, he’s now unbuttoned. His father never lived to see how he took care of the family, he told writer Juan Jose Millas on TV, his eyes muggy with tears.

This heart-baring has good reason. “La Mancha has meant a return to my mother. I’ve felt her very close to me during all the shoot,” Almodovar says. Francisca Caballero, his mother, died in 1999. “Volver” is a two-hour thank-you note to her and the women of Almodovar’s infancy.

It is a remarkably accurate, hence subtly humored, homage. Almodovar was born in La Mancha in 1951, 10 years before Spain’s industrial revolution took off. In terms of a country’s economic development, that’s as if Martin Scorsese were born in 1790.

In a comic time warp with social point, “Volver’s” women mix modernity, retro, archaic customs and resilient rural rites stretching back to Middle Ages. They do so without batting an eyelid.

Neighbor Agustina is a traditional Spanish rural spinster — her patio is her cloister — but smokes pot, like her hippie mother. Her sister stars in a reality show. Raimunda’s kitchen decor has ’60s-style white tiles, she

drives an ’80s Ford, but daughter Paula chats on her 2006 mobile.

The women kiss adios formidably — three smackers on the cheek — another aging custom. They speak quaintly (Raimunda “da la campanada” — “sets tongues wagging” — avoiding Aunt Paula’s wake). The villagers follow Paula’s hearse on foot, another ancient precept. Countryside “culture is based on death. … The dead never die. … That’s the most important return of ‘Volver,'” Almodovar says.

Agustina has already bought her own tomb and sits on it, “killing the dead hours of the day.” Men live in a parallel universe. They are largely absent, occasionally violent, more often feckless, hanging outside on the patio at Aunt Paula’s wake, while the women get on with the business.

The women, as so often in Mediterranean culture, handle life’s business at large.

That may explain another departure. In “Volver’s” social relations, sex is replaced by survival, the customs of caring and cookery, the exchange of food and small favors, furthering mutual support. Agustina looks after Aunt Paula; Irene nurses Angustias. “I’ve been a bit alone,” Sole tells Irene. “No more,” Irene replies. “Between us, we’ll get by,” Irene affirms.

Where does Almodovar go from here? There’s a sense in “Volver” of characters, especially Irene, who rue the lives they’ve lived. Many are alone. Almodovar lamented to Millas that he’d lost contact with friends. “Volver” is never happier than when Raimunda sets out in the street to buy fruit at the market.

But, wherever Almodovar goes next, this sense of women, their solidarity and support, is likely to inform his next departures.

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