VOLVER and Pedro Almodóvar's second golden age

Over the past three decades, Pedro Almodóvar has become one of the most widely beloved filmmakers in the world. His 2006 drama VOLVER — on Sundance Channel tonight and all month — was one of his biggest popular and critical hits, garnering its star Penelope Cruz a Best Actress Oscar nomination and helping cement his status as one of the few foreign filmmakers who could rightfully be called a household name in the U.S. To those of us who have been following his career since the beginning, this has come as a welcome surprise.

Almodóvar’s initial rise in the 1980s was fueled not just by his own considerable talents, but also partly by his ability to shock, with very outré, campy, dark comedies such as LABYRINTHS OF PASSION, DARK HABITS and THE LAW OF DESIRE. These films were remarkable for their playful confrontationality, featuring characters who were nymphomaniacs, cross-dressers, stalkers, junkies and other so-called “undesirables” in ultra-Catholic Spanish society. (The religious satire DARK HABITS memorably includes a lesbian drug addict Mother Superior.) Though often quite excellent, the films were often scandalous not just in their home country but also in the U.S. All this reached a head with TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN, his incendiary 1990 film about a disturbed man (a pre-stardom Antonio Banderas) who kidnaps and ties up an actress with whom he’s obsessed, and manages to successfully get her to fall in love with him. The film was a masterpiece, but many viewers were also outraged, and it helped bring about the MPAA’s controversial NC-17 rating.

Then, for a while, Almodóvar seemed to lose his mojo. In the early 1990s, films like HIGH HEELS, KIKA and THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET still featured playful twists on sexuality and obsession, but they also felt strangely insular, as if the director was riffing on his favorite genres in a hermetically sealed vacuum — a far cry from his boisterous, expansive early films. Maybe that’s why these movies got mixed critical notices and mostly faded from view after brief releases in the U.S. Many believed that Almodóvar’s golden age was over, that he’d lost his ability to shock and, more importantly, to move.

Then the director came out with 1999′s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and something seemed to have changed. Here was a typical Almodóvarian melodrama, to be sure — a tale about mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, with hefty doses of cross-dressing and perverse humor. But the film was also unabashedly, unironically emotional in a way that the director’s earlier films had avoided. He had successfully crossbred his subversive style with an earnestness, an emotional openness, that resulted in a firecracker of a movie. This represented a major comeback for the director, who was crowned with a Best Foreign Film Oscar (and made an adorable acceptance speech).

VOLVER is another movie in that vein: a family drama with heaping doses of comedy and strange supernatural tangents that, for all its playfulness, centers around the difficulties between mothers and daughters. When it comes to human relationships, VOLVER, like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and TALK TO HER before it, is beautifully observed and richly detailed in a way that allows viewers to immediately connect with it. But when you’re watching the movie, be sure to spare a thought for the director and how this bad boy of world cinema became one of its grand old men.

Don’t miss VOLVER tonight at 8P ad 10P and all month long on Sundance Channel.

Photo credit: Sony Picture Classics