Volver has one of the great, funny openings in all cinema: a Spanish cemetery filled with widows, happily scrubbing the tombstones of their late husbands for, as they say, the men don't live very long in La Mancha. And that turns out to be just dandy, for Pedro Almodóvar has returned to his abiding, psychologically prescient adoration of women with what is his strongest film in years.
Hard-working airport cleaner Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) must deal not only with raising her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), but the sudden, rather deserved death of her ne'er-do-well husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre). She receives tremendous succor from the strong community of women around her, including her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), and Agustina (Blanca Portillo), who cares for Raimunda's aged aunt (Chus Lampreave). What Raimunda doesn't realize, however, amidst all the hubbub of her opening her own restaurant and achieving a gratifying financial independence, is that her own mother Irene (Carmen Maura), long believed to have perished in a fire, has resurfaced, a literal ghost from the past.
The plot is a typical, soap opera-ish, Almodóvarian convolution, but far less so than his last, somewhat torturedly Byzantine Bad Education, and far more rewarding. Cruz gives her finest performance to date, topping even her consummately moving work in Don't Move. Embattled Raimunda is fiercely no-nonsense, with a hardness borne of the toughest life, but she slowly becomes humanized, even finding romance again, and the moment in which this really happens, when she breaks into a profoundly stirring old song (lip-synched to the great voice of Estrella Morente) while in her successful café, is memorably radiant. Watching Cruz, I kept flashing on Luchino Visconti's wonderful mother-love movie, Bellissima (Anna Magnani's greatest moment), and, sure enough, late in the film, Almodóvar injects a homage to it here. Throughout, Alberto Iglesias' music score is pure ravishment.
It's also wonderful to see Almodóvar's original muse, Maura, reunited with the maestro again, and she proves that, while she may have visibly aged, she has lost none of that unpredictably impish fortitude which made her a star. Dueñas, Cobo, Portillo and the ever-adorable Lampreave add more effulgent humanity to this emotionally nourishing work, certainly one of the great community-of-women films to rank alongside Marked Woman, Stage Door, the films of Naruse and Mizoguchi, and Almodóvar's comic masterpiece, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.