For all the expansion to be enjoyed in Pedro Almodóvar's recent string of excellent films, his newest, Volver, is his narrowest effort since 1995's rare misfire, The Flower of My Secret. After laboring with, and firmly executing, Bad Education's labyrinthine noir (its convolutions span three decades of lies and betrayals and trannies and heroin) it's fitting that Almodóvar would scale down to a story that, at bottom, only needs five principal sets and five principal characters. Even his broadened, widescreen palate is compressed within the frame: certain close-ups of his luminous cast are shot with such long lenses that a minor movement by the actress fuzzies up her ears or her perfectly mangled coif like a distant spotlight straining to keep a stage actor lit. This technique reflects the precision one has come to expect, and take for granted, in each new joy Almodóvar gifts us.
This is a story of returns, just as the title tells us, but its chief subject is feminine (and provincial) rites, rituals and customs. Almodóvar's allegiances have never been in doubt, and this is as bald a love letter as the nakedly titled All About My Mother. Yet Volver has no time for men, even if they're trying to be women like the earlier film's transvestite-hooker, Agrado. From the hilarious and poignant opening tracking shot across a wind-wrecked cemetery full of old maids tending and tidying faithful headstones, the screen is congested with women.