Career rebirths often occur after actors who have fallen from grace—or were never in it—deliver pompous performances that put them in the mouths of critics and audiences alike. Said performances tend to be of the biographical kind, in which actors take advantage of prosthetics, accents, and impersonation techniques to bring famous characters to life. It’s rare to see a “comeback” in which an actor breathes such life into someone fictitious that we leave the cinema and swear we might run into the character walking down the street. But that’s what Penélope Cruz achieves in “Volver.”
Before the film was released, Cruz was a celebrity whose intimate life was more discussed than her professional achievements. After delivering a string of forgettable performances in Hollywood movies that often reduced her to exotic bombshell stereotypes, she reteamed with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar to create what might be one of the all-time great “women’s pictures.” In “Volver,” Cruz plays Raimunda, a woman with a dark past trying to take care of her teenage daughter at all costs. In a plot that combines the murder mystery of “Mildred Pierce” with supernatural tales and the tragic shared history of “Two Women”—all filtered through Almodóvar’s colorful worldview—Cruz is able to walk a line between high camp and naturalistic heartbreak with miraculous effortlessness.
Her Raimunda might have been inspired by Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren, but the performance is Cruz’s own. She is not referencing these women as much as she is these women. Raimunda’s earthy qualities and vulgar charms were inherited; they are not learned affectations. Just watch the way in which she pulls a handkerchief from her brassiere or the way in which she picks up bread crumbs from a table and proceeds to lick them. Where other actors might have turned these into “look at me” moments, Cruz’s naturalistic mannerisms are akin to what Brando did with Eva Marie Saint’s glove in “On the Waterfront.”
Basking in the joy of the little traits she gives Raimunda isn’t as astonishing as watching her react and listen to other characters. Because of the way in which she interacts with her sister and aunt, we can’t help believing they have known one another for a lifetime. The more you revisit the movie, the more at home Cruz seems in Raimunda. Raimunda invents stories on the fly with such ersatz sincerity it feels as if Cruz is improvising (no offense to Almodóvar’s beautiful screenplay).
Perhaps most surprising is how little, if at all, Cruz altered her appearance to become Raimunda. Other than the infamous padded posterior her director made her wear, Raimunda looks and sounds like the actor playing her, proving that brilliance doesn’t necessarily come from external aids. Acting doesn’t rely on uglifying one’s appearance or denying one’s sexuality to convince audiences of a character’s tragic past or her endless love for her child. Good acting can come down to becoming so much like your character that audience members can smell your sweat, the food you’re chopping, and the blood you’re washing off your hands. In the movie’s most iconic scene, Raimunda performs the title song accompanied by flamenco guitars and claps, her eyes filled with longing and regret. By then, even if we’re aware that Cruz is lip-synching, we have become so seduced by her Raimunda that we are convinced we would kill for her.