Penelope Cruz forges her own path in Volver

In 2004, Pedro Almodovar released his intensely personal meditation on sexual identity and the Catholic church with the film Bad Education. Almodovar filled it with everything he had been honing over his career, intensely huge artistic shots, wildly tangled narratives, and sexually ambiguous characters partaking in morally ambiguous actions. With his latest film, Volver, Almodovar has branched off into a brazenly new direction. Seemingly stripped of most stylistic and narrative tricks, Volver, Almodovar's latest collaboration with old favorite Penelope Cruz seems almost barebones in comparison to his past visionary works. However, looking beyond the surface, one will find that Volver shares the complexity and nuance his past films have, only this time it is imbued in his incredibly talented cast of actresses, and the heart-wrenchingly bittersweet lives their characters lead in the film.

In the past, Almodovar has crafted his films using bold, almost iconic shots; visuals that last with the viewer long after the story unfolds. Volver is strikingly devoid of those shots; only once or twice do images present themselves that are as impactful as some of those which have come before. Instead, Almodovar reaches for a more personal approach to his latest film, shooting intimate moments and fiery emotions with the same stripped-down approach throughout.

What remains is Almodovar's love of color. He splashes a preponderance of scenes with bright and warm colors. The clothing his characters wear especially embodies this; Penelope Cruz's character Raimunda, a fiercely maternal woman, dresses the part, consistently sporting bold reds, offsetting her mundane surroundings.

Cruz, who has been cropping up for years now in mainstream fair like 2005's Sahara, crafts an exceptionally strong and unique character in Volver. While many of the women in the film exhibit Almodovar's usual combination of knowing worldliness and comical quirk, Cruz forges her won niche in the director's matriarchal epic. As a mother thrust into single-parenthood early on in the film, Cruz deftly handles the gamut of emotions caused by the disappearance of her good-for-nothing husband, the strained relationship she has with her daughter, and rallying her neighborhood behind her as she tries to rejuvenate a failing restaurant. Cruz makes Raimunda believable and loveable in all of the situations- traipsing truthfully thought the character's tricky trajectory, even as the possible ghost of her thought to be long dead mother appears. Almodovar himself has said in interviews that Cruz built much of Raimunda by herself, professing that while Cruz may have been slumming it with the likes of Matthew McConaghy in the past, with Volver she has finally come into her own with a poignantly personal performance.

Almodovar has visibly branched from his past work with Volver. The film delves into emotions and themes richer in some ways than has been possible before in his films. Volver lags a bit towards the end, something which the sharply cut Bad Education was able to elude, but to do justice to his heroines, Almodovar probably felt that every second was necessary. While Volver may easily be considered Almodovar's least surrealist drama, it will probably endure as one of his most personal.