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All about another mother

In Almodóvar's 'Volver,' a mother returns from the grave to make amends.

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Pedro Almodóvar has been a critics' darling for a long time. I championed his early movies, right up through "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," but I think most of his touted subsequent work, especially "All About My Mother" and "Bad Education," has been wildly overpraised.

Having said this, it may seem perverse for me to call "Volver" his best film in a long time. It's certainly his most accessible.

Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, who lives in Madrid with her layabout husband and teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo). One day her mother (Carmen Maura), who died in a fire, appears first to Raimunda's aunt (Chus Lampreave) and then to her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), a local hairdresser. By the time Raimunda has her own encounter with the mother, she is well prepared.

The matter-of-fact surrealism of the story is one of its boons. For Almodóvar, the presence of the departed with the living is obvious to the point of banality. His attitude in this film is: What's the fuss?

Although the plot becomes more convoluted as it goes along, it's held together by Almodóvar's love – adoration, really – for this band of women as they cope with the everyday struggle to survive.

As in most of his other movies, Almo- dóvar has drawn heavily on Hollywood genre pictures, particularly the overwrought, campy-baroque Joan Crawford variety, to frame his theatrics. But he has also, this time around, invoked actresses like Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

Raimunda's difficulties in keeping her life together for her daughter require a powerhouse actress, and Cruz, while lovelier and warmer than I have ever seen her, isn't really in the same class as those divas. (This hasn't stopped the Oscar buzz for her.) She has a moment in "Volver" – which means "to return" – where she belts out a flamenco song. It's a fine scene, but not a firestarter.

I have always felt that Almodóvar was at his best as an artist when he was at his most playful. "Volver" is about deadly serious matters of the heart, but it often has a screwball spirit. The darker things are, the funnier. This rousing extended family of working women brings out a gallantry in him: He wants to do justice to their lives. His way of accomplishing this is to keep things simple. The results are more, not less, profound. Grade: B+

Rated R for some sexual content and language.

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