Volver (15)

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His 16th feature, Volver is the Pedro Almodóvar film that you can at last take your gran to see. It is what grandmothers, through the ages, have traditionally described as "a lovely film" - one that has tunes, a gripping story and proper old-fashioned stars, and one that will send you out of the cinema with a fond tear in your eye. All this despite the usual Almodóvar quotient of murkiness: incest, murder, skeletons in the family closet, and trashy daytime TV.

Almodóvar's latest take on the conventions of the "women's picture", Volver harks back to such matriarchal Hollywood melodramas as Mildred Pierce, or Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment, about a brave mother facing peril to save her daughter. Penelope Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman of Madrid who takes decisive action when her teenage daughter stabs her no-good dad. A woman who always has her wits and just the right colour-coordinated foulard about her, Raimunda finds a sensible place to hide the body, and still manages to cook an impromptu lunch for 30. This, in Almodóvar's eyes, is a real woman - una mujer autentica.

Of all Almodóvar's films, Volver most fully imagines a female utopia, in which women club together to overcome adversity. After his recent male-dominated films, Talk to Her and Bad Education, Almodóvar's light touch here suggests he's breathing a sigh of relief at working again with a nearly all-female cast. Even the two sympathetic male characters are briskly hustled off screen once they've moved the narrative along. Almodóvar simply wants to spend time with the characters and actresses who cheer him up: among them, Raimunda's sweet-natured sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), dotty aunt Paula (the peerless, stony-faced Almodóvar veteran Chus Lampreave), eccentric neighbour Agustina (Blanca Portillo), and above all, Raimuinda's mother Irene (Carmen Maura).

Almodóvar's original muse, Maura starred in his 1980s films playing minxes, maneaters and frazzled chars with equal brio. In this long-awaited reunion with the director, she gives a performance that could be described as sporting at the very least: haggard in housecoat, knee socks and weary grey hair, she spends much of Volver hiding under beds and in car boots. Suffice to say, she's having the time of her life as cinema's most improbable revenant: a woman who defies mortality to pose as a Russian hairdressing assistant.

That Maura should be willing to play it so buffoonish is especially game, given how the film piles glamour on Penelope Cruz, who has essentially stepped into the housewife-in-trouble role that Maura played so memorably in 1984's What Have I Done To Deserve This? (Almodóvar has never been afraid to recycle). Cruz is a surpassingly dire actress in English, but in her native language, she's nothing less than dazzling - and a screen goddess in the old high style. Her Raimunda is stately, fiery and intense - all the qualities you associate with the bygone type of European screen queen exemplified by Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. Cruz here embodies turbo-powered glamour - even as a proletarian mum in a tough corner, Raimunda is never less than immaculately chic (Almodóvar even makes sure her jumper matches when she passes a red fire extinguisher - no greater care has a director).

Almodóvar makes Cruz not just statuesque, but a sort of living allegorical statue of Woman: he emphasises her physical presence, padding out her bottom and throwing in a magnificently gratuitous shot from above of her Wonderbra-ed cleavage over the kitchen sink. In Raimunda, he has fashioned the ultimate yummy mummy - or madre sabrosa, as they say in La Mancha. But Cruz not only radiates magnificence, she also gives a rich, nuanced performance - Raimunda is nervous, proud, angry, flirtatious, mischievous, a range you'd never have suspected of Cruz from, say, Vanilla Sky. When she lip-synchs to the title song, even while you know the voice isn't her own, the tears welling in her eye and the tremble of the lip almost make the performance more intensely hers than if she had sung.

It's such moments that make Volver so satisfying. If not for Cruz and Maura, the film might not be such a big deal, just another Almodóvar black comedy in a rather simpler mode than we're used to - although the usual crowd of baroque back stories still hover around to clutter up the plot. Nowhere near as insightful as All About My Mother nor as subtly troubling as Talk To Her, Volver is hardly a breakthrough: but in narrative, style and performance, it simply feels like Almodóvar's most complete package in ages.