During the opening credits of "Volver," the camera pans across a multitude of gravestones as surviving family members brush them off to pay their respects. Gusts of wind blow throughout the cemetery as the sun shines in a clear, blue sky, creating an environment of serene beauty that seems to accentuate the tranquil tone of the film.
Events move along in an unhurried fashion and each scene that follows is as stimulated by its surroundings as the first. When blood is shown, it is bright red and vivid. At night, the streets are illuminated by reflections of the lampposts, the clothes each person wears are boldly colored — lots of green, red and black — and even the wall graffiti that towers behind two people as they converse on a bench jumps off the screen.

There is much more than the setting, however, that makes "Volver" such a unique and powerful film. Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has constructed a deliberately gentle melodrama with weighty topics that encapsulate elements of suspense, humor and tragedy. The characters come to life in a natural way, and the story is continuously absorbing.

Almodóvar, who has been enthralling viewers for more than 25 years, is at an interesting place in his career. He is the highest-praised Spanish filmmaker working today, and that respected stature allows him to venture into territories that cinema rarely likes to go. His films often feature loving portraits of gender archetypes — strong women, normal transvestites — and humane treatments of dark subject matter — like the disturbed male nurse in "Hable con ella."

"Volver" is Almodóvar's best film since "Todo sobre mi madre," and it is also his most ethereal. He chooses tenderness over eccentricity.
The plot revolves around a ravishing woman named Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) who lives in Madrid with her deadbeat husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre) and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). Raimunda is emotionally fragile and financially unstable, much like her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), a solitary hairdresser whose salon is run underhandedly.

The two siblings lost their parents in an accidental fire years earlier. The only parental figure left in their lives is their Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) who lives in the family's native village of La Mancha, and strangely speaks of the sisters' deceased mother as if she were still alive.

When Aunt Paula unexpectedly passes on, Sole phones Raimunda to ask that she accompany her to the funeral but is turned down. It turns out Raimunda had just recently returned home from work to discover unforeseen problems in her own home.
Meanwhile, Sole attends her aunt's funeral alone, and afterward, hears banging from the inside of her trunk. To her astonishment, she opens it up and discovers the intriguing return of a person in her past, her mother Irene (Carmen Maura).

Sole is a bit frightened at first glance but then goes on, business as usual, and decides to keep the discovery hidden, especially from Raimunda, who harbors resentment toward their mother. After waiting in limbo, Irene, sets forth to try to fix the problems of her family that she was unable to fix in life, and in the process buried secrets are revealed and old wounds are reopened.

All that may sound like a complex, overly gimmicky storyline, but it is all played out in a straightforward fashion. Sure, there are moments of highly stylized filmmaking present — such as Paco's death scene, which looks like an homage to a Hitchcock thriller — but "Volver" is more about real people dealing with extraordinary circumstances and all that surrounds them. It is both metaphorical and concrete.

Many other writer/directors might have made a huge deal out of the character of Irene, putting too much emphasis on her supernatural qualities. Instead, Almodóvar paints her as the same woman she was before her death, and the fact that she has come back from the dead is only the beginning of her true transformation. Maura, a longtime Almodóvar collaborator, gives a performance that rings true. She loses herself in the character of Irene, and no emotion seems false. While all the other actors deliver exceptional performances, the other cast member who really stands out is, of course, Cruz, in the best performance of her career. She is radiant, genuine and absolutely gorgeous.

Almodóvar has done it again. In "Volver," every cinematic component he employs fuses together gracefully, creating a film that is not to be missed.

GRADE: 4 out of 5