Idol Chatter

Pedro Almodóvar doesn’t see dead people, but if you tell him that you do, he’ll probably believe it.

“I don’t believe that people come from [the afterlife] in a physical way,” the director said when he met with press last month. “But I completely believe the people that talk about them. I’m sure that they have had an experience with someone they love who died.”

That’s precisely what happens in Almodóvar’s latest film, “Volver.”

The film, which reunites him with favorite players Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, is set in a picturesque village inspired both by the writer/director’s hometown and the spook-free ghost stories he heard as a child.

“(In the) little village where I was born, the supernatural as it existed almost becomes natural, becomes real,” Almodóvar said. “I grew up listening to stories of ghostly apparitions. My sisters have told me they’ve seen apparitions and my mother also.”

Apparitions are made flesh and blood in “Volver” (“Return” in Spanish) when Irene (Maura), a long-dead mother, returns from the afterlife to reconcile with her estranged daughter (Cruz). But by the time Irene shows up in the trunk of her other daughter’s (Lola Duenas) car, Cruz’s Raimunda, a hard-working maid by day, is trying to forget her past.

“She’s damaged,” Cruz explained. “There are so many things she doesn’t want to look at, and when she looks at them she breaks down. When her mother comes back into her life, she finds peace she has not had since she was a teenager.”

Peace–a lá Almodóvar–happens only at the tail end of a deliciously twisted plot, including the death and freezer-burial of Raimunda’s husband and the flourishing of a restaurant where Raimunda takes over as owner/singer/chef. With “Volver,” Almodóvar sidesteps genre altogether, crafting a film that’s hilariously funny despite the macabre presence of murder and ghosts.

The supernatural is treated as matter-of-factly as vacuum cleaning, and as Almodóvar examines the relationships between three generations of Spanish women–Maura, Cruz, and young Yohana Cobo, who plays Cruz’s teenaged daughter–mysticism is tuned to a minimum. No special effects are used, and Maura is filmed as simply as the “living” characters: She walks, she talks, she makes amends.

“I have taken care visually not to turn Carmen Maura into anything other than something that feels real…. She has white hair, that she walks down the stairs, and so on,” Almodóvar said.

“One of the points for me in this movie is to talk about the ease and naturalness (with which) people from my countryside deal with death and the dead–it’s just part of the world they live in. The truth of the matter is, I don’t believe people die as long as people remember them.”

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