After a string of so-so films as she fought to make her name in Hollywood, Penélope Cruz's reunion with the director Pedro Almodovar has been hailed as a dazzling return to form.
From success at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Volver (Go Back) has garnered the kind of adulation that prompts talk of possible Oscar glory. And as the awards charabanc gets into gear, Cruz began her acceptance speech training on Saturday when she was named actress of the year at the European Film Awards in Poland.
She won for a sexy, feisty performance - complete with plunging neckline and padded bottom - as Raimunda in a dark comedy including ghosts and a murder set in Almodovar's home territory of La Mancha.
Shimmering in a golden dress, Cruz, 32, spoke emotionally about working with Almodovar. "Pedro, I love you so much," she said, almost in tears. "Thank you for believing in me. You're changing not only my career, but a lot of things in my life."
They last worked together seven years ago on All About My Mother, in which Cruz played a nun, and before that in Live Flesh in 1997. But when the Spanish star followed Antonio Banderas to Hollywood, her career choices looked less assured. Vanilla Sky was panned by the critics and served principally to introduce her to Tom Cruise with whom she had a closely watched relationship.
Even European productions in English rather than her native Spanish failed to win her plaudits. Few fans of Captain Corelli's Mandolin seemed as satisfied with the film as with Louis de Bernières' book. But in the hands of a gay director back on home turf, Cruz has blossomed again and is now tipped for a best actress nomination at the Oscars where it is rare for a performance in a foreign-language movie to stand a chance.
She has paid repeated tribute to Almodovar's capacity to write good parts for women and to encourage equally great performances from his female stars. Indeed, while she was honoured alone on Saturday, the six-strong cast of women jointly received the best actress prize at Cannes
Almodovar himself won best director at the European awards as Volver trumped The Wind That Shakes the Barley by the British director Ken Loach to take four prizes altogether. "Going back to the little place I was from - La Mancha - that was a very important experience for me, not just a cinematic experience," he said at the ceremony. He dedicated the award to Cruz and her co-stars, including one of his early muses, Carmen Maura, whom he said represented "the incredible women that surrounded me when I was a child".
The cinematography prize was shared between Jose Luis Alcaine for Volver and Barry Ackroyd for The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Loach, 70, who won a special jury prize at the British Independent Film Awards in London last week, had been shortlisted for best director for his Irish civil-war saga which had received five nominations in all.
But Cillian Murphy, its star, lost best actor award to Ulrich Muehe in Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The German film beat Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo to win movie of the year.
Other honours included a lifetime achievement award for Roman Polanski while the British producer Jeremy Thomas, whose works include The Last Emperor and Young Adam, received the European achievement in world cinema prize.
The full list of winners
* EUROPEAN FILM
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), Germany, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
* EUROPEAN DIRECTOR
Pedro Almodóvar for Volver
* EUROPEAN ACTRESS
Penélope Cruz for Volver
* EUROPEAN ACTOR
Ulrich Mühe for Das Leben der Anderen
* EUROPEAN CINEMATOGRAPHER
Barry Ackroyd for The Wind that Shakes the Barley; José Luis Alcaine for Volver
* EUROPEAN SCREENWRITER
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck for Das Leben der Anderen
* EUROPEAN COMPOSER
Alberto Iglesias for Volver
EUROPEAN FILM ACADEMY SHORT FILM 2006
Before Dawn, Bálint Kenyeres, Hungary
* LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
* PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD
Volver, Pedro Amodóvar, Spain