As is frequently the case in Almodovar's films, Volver is about a cast of women. The central figure is Raimunda (Penelope Cruz, who won the best actress award for this role at Cannes and has been nominated for an Oscar). She's a working-class wife and mother from Madrid who remains connected with family in the small village where she grew up. The movie opens with Raimunda on a day trip to the countryside to visit with her aged Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), and right from the start Almodovar provides us a typical flourish. Not ultimately critical to his story, Aunt Paula is in declining health and dimming mental facility, and yet all at the same time, she sparkles with life, with droll wit that's not always nice and with a steady will to live out her days on her own terms. She is in no way remarkable, except that she is so richly human. She is beloved by those who know her, and in swift strokes, Almodovar makes us love her too.
Aunt Paula assures Raimunda that she's well cared for by Raimunda's own mother Irene (the marvelous Carmen Maura). That would be typical of Irene, save for the fact that Irene died in a fire several years ago. And then, Raimunda's sister Sole (Lola Duenas) thinks she sees Irene upstairs at Aunt Paula's house. A neighbor, Agustina (Blanca Portillo), says that Irene's ghost has been caring for Aunt Paula for years. And something that walks, talks, looks and even smells like Irene subsequently shows up in the trunk of Sole's car with the declaration of having arrived to reconnect with her daughters. Raimunda thinks all this is the direct result of her hometown's having the highest rate of insanity in all of Spain.
From this point, things swirl ever more briskly into Almodovarland. We discover in fairly rapid order that Irene and Raimunda were estranged for many years and never reconciled before Irene's death. In her late teens, Raimunda took up residence with Aunt Paula and named her own daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) in her aunt's honor. Paula is now a teen herself and beginning to experience some of the friction with her mother that Raimunda endured with Irene. Parallels keep paralleling through to the closing credits.
Upon her return from the countryside, Raimunda finds her husband Paco (Antonio De La Torre) drunken, surly and unemployed. A short time later, she finds him deceased, a sprawled corpse on her kitchen floor, a butcher knife buried to the hilt in his belly. You can tell that Almodovar has little interest in the male characters in this movie since he's so sketchy in the development of Paco, the only male character of any importance. We don't know whether Paco is chronically or only acutely a lout. The latter would seem to be the case, but the script doesn't offer a single clue as to why he goes so bad so fast.
Off screen, Paco makes a crude sexual overture to his teenage daughter, and Paula responds with a thrust of her own -- cold steel, adios Papa. Raimunda blames herself and prepares to take the blame if it becomes necessary. Of course, if she can get the corpse back to the countryside and plant it 6 feet under, maybe the authorities will never find out. Among the many funny scenes are those depicting Raimunda's endeavors to deal with Paco's body. As pallbearers, of a kind, she recruits friends from the neighborhood, all women of course. And these include a local hooker who thinks at first that Raimunda is requesting another kind of assistance altogether.
Volver doesn't concern itself with conventional narrative tidiness. Save to have a freezer in which to store Paco for a while, I can't account for the longish passage in which Raimunda operates a restaurant and caters meals to a movie company. But however little they have to do with the main story of homicide and other atrocities, these are nonetheless sunny, pleasant scenes, and we enjoy being with Raimunda and admire the energy she brings to her work. And that's the final point and enduring pleasure of this whole picture. Even under stress, the female of the species, at least, is a treasure of resolve and endurance. Stories about women like Raimunda don't have to be tightly structured to be memorably endearing.