Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s work has steadily penetrated American households with each successive release on home video. Spanish actress Penelope Cruz has steadily annoyed American audiences with each successive co-starring role in Hollywood big budget misfires and tabloid-worthy pairings with Hollywood’s elite bachelors. Yet somehow the two share a chemistry drawing them back together for a third pairing in Volver, which ironically – or perhaps not – translates to “coming back” in English.
Most Americans will instantaneously recognize Volver as the film attached to Cruz’s recent Oscar nomination and subsequent loss. I’ve been a harsh critic of Cruz’s work since first cringing to her role in Vanilla Sky alongside Tom Cruise and more recently Sahara with Matthew McConaughey, so accepting her place amongst Hollywood’s best actresses was no easy pill to swallow. Then again, until Volver I’ve never seen the actress performing in her native tongue or under the tutelage of a near-legendary director. Now post-Volver, I’ve finally seen Penelope in her element instead of a fish out of water, and now understand why the Academy was willing to celebrate her performance.
What astonishes me most about Penelope in Volver is how she effortlessly is able to jump between diverse emotions from Almodovar’s script and direction with natural, unforced, uninhibited energy. Her character, Raimunda, copes with numerous tragic and comedic circumstances interwoven with close family members. Raimunda is squeezed through a ringer by the prospect her dead mother is haunting the small town they hail from, and pushed to the brink of financial ruin by the hauntingly disturbing death of her husband. Through it all, she’s able to comically fend off comments her breasts appear unnaturally large, a whimsical train of thought hard not to ignore with some of Almodovar’s not-so-discrete camera angles.
Aldomovar has clearly crafted Volver for female audiences by restricting males to stepping stones inserted solely for story’s progression towards sacrifice and forgiveness. The director goes as far as poising Raimunda’s cleavage to draw male attention, then cleverly disposing of the need for XY chromosomes with a single, brief awkward glance and poignant Raimunda response. Whether intentionally or not, Penelope, and her fellow equally impressive co-stars, successfully pull Aldomovar’s unconventional familial “coming back” tale beyond its target female audience and into a greater world of mass appeal.
Volver is a cautiously colorful film which, at times, is deliberately softened by Aldomovar leaving behind a faint trace of unobtrusive film grain. Sony’s 1080p MPEG-2 presentation on Blu-ray more than faithfully transfers Aldomovar’s vision to the screen with nary a blemish, over-saturated frame or compression artifacts at the hand of strong winds blowing persistently through Raimunda’s small town. As is often the case in lower budget special effects deprived films, outdoor scenes steal all the visual glory while darker scenes aren’t quite as sharp, but succeed nonetheless by not succumbing to black crush or other compression oddities.
The PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio track holds its own against the strong video transfer, chalking up another clean sweep high definition presentation from Sony on Blu-ray. Even though non-Spanish speakers like myself are left reading English subtitles, the Spanish dialogue is crisp and unobstructed by the refreshingly different and soothing Spanish score. Whirling winds and music don’t miss a speaker in the 5.1 setup in what could have easily been a cop out mix with 95% suppressed to the front channels. This is one of the better non-action oriented 5.1 mixes of recent memory, aided by Sony’s rule of sticking with PCM audio for all their Blu-ray releases.
There is a borderline sensation of obsession with Penelope Cruz in the extra features starting with a Feature-Length Audio Commentary by her and director/writer Pedro Aldomovar in Spanish with subtitles mixed in innocuously with those from the film. Pedro comes across as the wise teacher and Penelope the student as they jump between praising each other for their work and discussing the film and its impact on their respective careers. The admiration between the two is genuine to the point where you wonder why Penelope works with any other director, and want them to cut it out and talk more about the film.
Aside from a number of Blu-ray Disc Trailers including missing-in-action Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and lacking the disc’s namesake, Volver, the remaining extras are all presented in 480i standard definition. A trio of short Interviews with Pedro Almodovar, Penelope Cruz and actress Carmen Maura, who also is a veteran of working of Pedro, are accentuated by an 18-minute Tribute to Penelope Cruz. This tribute is entirely comprised of a candid sit-down interview in which the actress discusses her career in-depth. Rounding out the extras is a Photo Gallery and Posters for static image fans, along with The Making of Volver, an 18-minute montage of behind-the-scenes footage set to songs from the film. This speechless approach is different than the typical menagerie of interviews and commentary yet somehow fits Aldomovar’s style to a tee, despite its lack of verbal insight.
Pedro Aldomovar’s Volver is as much a story of coming back for the characters in the film as it is for the director, Penelope Cruz and actress Carmen Maura. For Penelope and Pedro, the third time truly is the charm as this performance will catapult the actress beyond her Hollywood flings and into meatier roles. Despite intentions of touching female audiences, Volver is worth a look for males not only for the splendid high definition Blu-ray presentation, but for the story and performances as well.
– Dan Bradley