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Almodovar's Latest: Va Va Va Volver

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar made his breakthrough comedy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, almost two decades ago. His latest film, Volver, is also about women -- and though they're not nervous or breaking down, they're definitely having a rough couple of weeks.

Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), for instance, has an awful lot on her plate. There's a family friend dying of cancer, and another who's simply disappeared, an elderly aunt who's suddenly dropped dead, a sister who's started keeping secrets, and a 14-year-old daughter, Paula, who is refusing to go into the kitchen.

With good reason, mind you. Paula turns out to have killed Raimunda's brute of a husband, for reasons her mother reluctantly endorses. Still, it's another mess to clean up, and doing so is bound to put a serious crimp in Raimunda's ability to cook a command-performance lunch for 30 unexpected guests at a restaurant she's in charge of. All this, and a "dead" mother who appears to have returned from the grave and begun posing as a Russian hairdresser.

Welcome to Almodovar country -- a cheerfully improbable place where director Pedro Almodovar makes sure that colors are bright, emotions are bold, laughs are frequent and plots twist like pretzels.

The director's last film, Bad Education, was masculine and decidedly dark. Volver, with its story of women nurturing each other across generations, is bright enough to put the melody back in melodrama -- quite literally in one scene, by letting Raimunda sing her heart out.

Volver means "to return" in Spanish, and while the title refers to the return of Raimunda's mom from the dead, it returned me to a debate I had with my dad back when I was 11.

It was about who was the most beautiful movie star in the world, and as long as we stuck to stars in the Hollywood mold, like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, my mom let us talk.

But as soon as Sophia Loren came up, she made us stop. Marilyn and Liz, she considered safe topics for an 11-year-old, but Sophia Loren, she knew would inevitably bring sex into the equation.

I bring this up because Almodovar more or less recreates Penelope Cruz -- who's always been gorgeous, of course -- as a screen siren in the Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida/Anna Magnani mold -- earthy, strong, vibrant and, in ways that might well overexcite an 11-year-old, deeply sensual.

The director surrounds her with sirens of other stripes. Chief among them is Carmen Maura, whom he once had on the verge of breaking down, and who he now employs to crack audiences up.

But Cruz is always the focus in Volver, and she is captivating, whether washing dishes or deciding what to do with a body that's "inconveniently" lying in a pool of blood on her kitchen floor.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.