‘Volver’ is a stunning, beautiful ghost story

Ben Raymond

We usually associate ghost stories with the ghouls and goblins of the horror genre. We imagine an R-rated mélange of cheap scares and cardboard acting. But when the ghosts have real faces and real stories, we must rethink this preconception. Not all ghost stories are made for the dark.

This particular ghost story is “Volver.” The film is a colorful, handsome story of redemption, devotion and forgiveness. When the ghost of Irene (Carmen Maura), mother of Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), returns from the ashes to shed light on grave family secrets and settle issues left unresolved, a series of interrelated events are set into motion. New revelations connect each and every character in an intricate, tenuous web of both truth and deception. And it makes for a magnetic, beaming movie.

The ensemble is spectacular. Among the supporting cast, Dueñas stands-out. She delivers an earnest, comical performance and does far more than simply hold her own in Cruz’s shadow. Her portrayal is fantastic in its own right and is certainly one of the best supporting performances of the year. It’s a shame no one noticed.

Cruz is positively luminous. I mean, her beauty isn’t just striking; it’s unfair. And not only that, she is an extremely talented actress. Few performances in recent memory have been so elegant or so genuine. Cruz basks in the role. Laughing, crying and even singing with matchless grace, she radiates throughout the film. She equals, if not surpasses, her outer beauty as she delivers an impassioned performance of consummate humor and warmth.

Direction from Spanish master auteur Almodóvar is, as always, impeccable. With his typical subdued intensity, he paints an attractive, poignant cinematic portrait. No director working today matches his gift for intimacy. “Volver,” like his previous masterpieces, is a deep, uniquely humanized experience. The film is pensive, soft and subtle. What profound obsession it must take to achieve such contact.

As is a constant motif throughout all of Almodóvar’s works, sex is at the heart of the story. But keep your belts buckled, kids; I refer to its impact on the human soul. Love, lust, creation, desire, depravity, obsession, suppression, adultery and adoration are constant themes that serve not to arouse, but to enrich.

Almodóvar portrays sex as both life’s greatest gift and greatest curse. He is fascinated with its power to both create and destroy lives. The careful tenderness with which he films the feminine form and the way in which he imparts sexuality quietly, with grace and meditation, is simply astounding.

A banquet for the ears and eyes, the film is a lavish potpourri of sound and color. Delicate, sexy acoustics play quietly throughout. Visually striking as well, the screen is freely brushed with oranges, blues and magentas. The movie is so pleasing to the eye, I feel as though it were just as much an impressionist work as a moving picture. A bold, echoing experience for the senses, it is a truly beautiful film.

I have seen almost 900 films to date. “Volver” is certainly among the most beautiful. A rich, reflective story adorned with weighty performances and masterful artistry, it is one of my favorite pictures of the decade. Powerful, lush and engaging, it is a treat for the senses and the heart.