The cinema of Pedro Almodóvar is a broad church. His recent films have looked sympathetically on paedophile priests (in Bad Education), a male nurse who rapes a woman in a coma (Talk To Her) and a transsexual who passes the HIV virus on to a nun (All About My Mother). Delve even further back in the director's career and you will find likeable serial killers, kidnappers and glue sniffers, not to mention common or garden sex maniacs.
Almodóvar's latest picture, Volver, is subdued by comparison. The title means "to return", and most of the characters are in some way imprisoned by the past. The film establishes a bitter-sweet tone with its opening sequence at a cemetery in La Mancha, where armies of widows scrub furiously at the headstones and struggle to keep vases of flowers upright in the wind. Death, and the resilience of women, loom large in these shots, and throughout what follows.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a bored airport cleaner who returns home one evening to find that her boyfriend has been killed by her teenaged daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), after he tried to molest her. Being a practical sort, Raimunda bundles the corpse into the freezer at a nearby restaurant and promises Paula she will take the rap. She also decides on a whim to open the restaurant, which she is minding in the owner's absence, and does a roaring trade. But the day inevitably arrives when the body must be shifted - with the help of the burly neighbourhood prostitute, just in case we'd forgotten this was an Almodóvar film.
These problems are pedestrian compared to what Raimunda's sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), is going through. After returning to the village where she was raised, she is shocked to encounter the ghost of her mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), who perished in a fire three years earlier. "Is Dad going to appear?" gasps Sole. "I hope not," replies the spectre. The scene gets the bottom lip quivering when Sole sighs, "I'm alone, Mum, like always," to which Irene replies fondly: "Not any more." Their gentle reunion provides the film with its most touching scene, which is problematic given that there's still more than an hour of Volver to go.
The two plot strands converge awkwardly when a family friend, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), discovers she has cancer and begs Raimunda to find her own mother, who may be implicated in the blaze that killed Irene. The rest of the film is littered with revelations, few of which generate the necessary emotional sparks; the eye is tickled by the bright sets and fruity costumes, but the heart is left largely unstirred.
What power the film has is down to its cast. Dueñas is poignant in the most unshowy part, and it is heartening to see Maura back with Almodóvar, nearly two decades after these once-devoted collaborators fell out while making Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And Cruz looks splendidly peeved in her first juicy role since becoming pigeon-holed as Hollywood's resident exotic female. She even gets to do the washing up in one scene. It reminded me of when an action hero does his own stunts and we're invited to marvel at his bravery and audacity.
One of Almodóvar's trademarks has always been the ability to absorb scandalous material into his benign world-view; part of the thrill of early works such as The Law of Desire and Matador was that they were so blasé about immorality. But in Volver, where the low-key subject matter needs some extra oomph to bring it to life, the reluctance to build momentum leaves the film seeming flat. One scene, in which Agustina appears on a talk show where she is promised the finest cancer treatment if she spills the beans about her mother, is so implausible, you can scarcely believe that it made it to the page, let alone the screen. Elsewhere, the picture's abundant story unfolds in prosaic fashion.
After the breakneck, Byzantine plotting of Bad Education, which I'm still spending my weekends trying to unpick, it's disappointing to find Almodóvar shifting down so many gears that he almost comes to a standstill.
Pick of the week
A Scanner Darkly (15)
dir: Richard Linklater
Rotoscope animation helps elevate this futuristic thriller into the realms of the weird.
dir: Fred Zinnemann
The sunny-hearted, 1955 film version of an enduring Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
Warrior King (18)
dir: Prachya Pinkaew
Completely bonkers martial-arts adventure, with Thailand's rising star Tony Jaa.