Pedro Almodóvar, who once seemed a director on the verge of becoming the Catalan John Waters, has instead “matured” in the best possible way. Continuing the larger narrative he began with Bad Education, he again delves into the wounds of childhood but achieves a film that’s perfectly balanced instead of precariously so. Its rhythm is so nicely calibrated as to be undetectable; Almodóvar makes every choice — both for himself and his characters — seem absolutely inevitable.
Penelope Cruz plays Raimunda, the film’s nervy center of gravity, as a sort of bitchy, strong-willed mom and wife, who you find yourself wishing would have more patience for those around her… until you clue in. Her husband is a beer-swilling brute (Almodóvar’s only Achilles heel is perhaps his caricatured depiction of straight men) who eyes their adolescent daughter lasciviously — and forms a link to Raimunda’s past we’ll find out about later. Once Almodóvar has eliminated all the testosterone he is able to thrive in his universe of women. Raimunda’s sister Soledad’s tiptoeing timidity playing off against childhood neighbor Abuela’s benevolent forcefulness is one of the many dynamics he sets out in the film’s very first scenes. His ability to make us feel instant empathy with his characters is the man’s trademark and no one of his generation does it any better.
By setting the table so expertly, Almodóvar can then pretty much take us wherever he wants. Farce? Satire? Ghost story? Suspense thriller? Why not a bit of each, and in the space between genres a permeating sense of regret. Set in his childhood hometown of La Mancha, an area known for gusting winds and piety, he manages to look back mistily without succumbing to nostalgia, one of this film’s many idiosyncratic qualities. Opens November 3