The common-place women's picture (think Fried Green Tomatoes) is vapid and brittle and rinsed in pastel blue. But Pedro Almodovar's opuses are luminous and warm, and shot with crimson and orange like a fancy cocktail. But despite the kind of glowing reception it's been getting, is Almodovar's latest, Volver, any deeper than Tomatoes? It's a civilized send-up of a melodrama, but the very civilization blunts its sharpness.
Volver takes place under the dry light of La Mancha. The joke here is that the prevailing winds drive the women insane and carry the men to their graves early. Then again, in Volver, the men are often better off dead.
The titles weave through a throng of women with buckets and rubber gloves, carefully washing the marble tombs of their parents. Such is tradition; on weekends, these city women come back home for Sunday dinner (volver means "to return"). Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) goes for an after-cemetery snack at the home of her Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave). The old lady claims that Raimunda's mother, Irene, is still around, taking care of her. But Raimunda's mom burned to death in an accident years before.
Aunt Paula is right. Irene (Carmen Maura) is either alive or else a very vigorous ghost. She materializes in Madrid, at the flat of Raimunda's plain, unmarried sister Sole (Lola Duenas). Irene stays in hiding, diving under the bed when anyone comes to the door. But Raimunda has a secret, too: her no-good, lecherous husband is dead and currently stashed in the deep-freeze of a nearby restaurant.
To answer the next question, "What's in it for the men?" there's Penelope Cruz. Cruz is as overwhelming as Sophia Loren was in her prime. Raimunda is the kind of woman who has been making Spaniards nervous for centuries: slim and cool, but with a bodice that would make any mammal dream of contentment.
Volver is a rich entertainment. It combines peasant common sense with the lustrous surface that used to be part of the deal with every movie ticket. Still, it doesn't have the mad-eyed quality of Almodovar's earlier films. It's at peace with the way things are. In Volver, the dysfunctional family is timeless: generation by generation, men will always be dogs, and the women will always find ways to train them.
Or, if necessary, to put them to sleep.
Volver opens on Friday, Dec. 22, at the Century CineArts Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.4862; and at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa, 707.525.4840.