Pedro Almodóvar is one of the only directors who, a quarter-century into his career, remains an international brand name, his every new film anticipated and talked about the way Bergman's or Godard's or Antonioni's used to be. Volver ("To Return") is his latest in a long run of wonderful pictures. In it, his once-kitschy obsession with color and surface continues to deepen into a big, bold, almost painterly style.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) is a janitor at the Madrid airport who lives with her adolescent daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her drunken, lay-about husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre). Raimunda and her hairdresser sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), return to their La Mancha village to visit their senile auntie (Chus Lampreave, who's played marvelous old biddies in several Almodóvar films). There, they learn that locals have spotted the ghost of their dead mother haunting the family home. But is this just village superstition, or does their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), have something she still needs to accomplish on earth?
The fact that Irene soon shows up in Sole's car trunk with a suitcase full of flowered housedresses doesn't necessarily resolve the question of whether Volver believes in ghosts or not. What the film does believe in, clearly, is women. As in some of the director's earlier dramas, such as All About My Mother and The Flower of My Secret, this is a largely gynocratic world, where traditional women's concerns—a well-cooked meal, a bargain on groceries, the right haircut—matter deeply. An act of violence early on lends the film some thriller elements, and there's no shortage of goofy quick-hide-in-the-closet farce, but at heart Volver is a straight-up domestic drama, almost a telenovela, with revelations, reversals, and tearful reunions.
The director hasn't completely left camp behind, in that you have to have a high tolerance for melodrama to see past the apparent corniness of his plot twists. But even if you're allergic to cliché, don't roll your eyes too soon. This is lush, fertile, emotionally rich filmmaking: The ideas sneak up on you slowly, but the feelings clobber you like falling safes. No matter how jaded a viewer you are, the idea of a dead mother—or any lost object of love—reappearing out of the past to make peace with the living has an archetypal force that's hard to get around. When Irene's ghost (who's hiding from Raimunda because of an old quarrel between the two), overhears her daughter singing a gorgeous Gardel tango that she used to sing to her as a child, I guarantee you will not care that the director's trying to get you to cry. You'll just do it.
As much as it's a tribute to maternity and the feminine life force, Volver is a celebration of a way of life that's particularly Spanish. The portrait of village life, as personified by the plain-spoken neighbor Agustina (Blanca Portillo) is loving and precise: Though gossipy and insular, it's also a place where ghosts bake you batches of cookies to take home. And when Raimunda takes over the restaurant next-door to her house as a means of making extra money, the lavish meals she cooks are filmed with an avid, not to say greedy, pleasure. You know how some French movies all but force you to go out for red wine and cigarettes afterward? This one will send you to the nearest tapas bar for sure.
Penélope Cruz, who's been so painful to watch in English-language roles over the past few years, reminds us that she really can act; she just can't act speaking phonetic dialogue. In her native language she's witty, wry, and elegant—perhaps more Grace Kelly than Anna Magnani (who's explicitly referenced in the film when a character watches Visconti's Bellíssima on TV), but a delight to watch. And Carmen Maura, the former Almodóvar star who broke with the director after Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is superb as Irene, the wonderfully earthly ghost who makes cookies, giggles at her own farts, and helps shampoo the hair of her daughter's clients. The fact that, like Irene, Maura has come back 17 years later to make amends only adds another dimension to this story of loss, return, and the possibility of forgiveness.