A single shot from Volver illustrates what sets Pedro Almodóvar apart from other filmmakers: About halfway through, the film pauses for a long close-up of star Penélope Cruz. For a lot of directors, that would be enough. She's an arresting beauty, and most of her American roles use her as that, and little more. But Almodóvar worked with her first, and he knows that there's much more to her than her looks. What's more, that shot is a close-up tight enough to reveal that Cruz, like the character she plays, has begun to see her ingénue youthfulness fade. There's makeup on her face and sadness in her eyes, and when she opens her mouth to sing the title song, the voice of flamenco singer Estrella Morente emerges. There's no small amount of artifice to the art, but to call it artificial is to miss the point. The obvious effort needed to create it becomes part of its beauty.
A professional cleaner, Cruz is first seen sweeping the grave of her parents, who died together in a fire. Before long, she's forced to confront a flurry of unexpected problems, beginning when her shiftless, alcoholic husband (Antonio de la Torre) reveals that he's lost his job, and continuing when he decides to spend his first day of unemployment making sexual advances to Cruz's daughter (Yohana Cobo). That decision has some unexpectedly bloody consequences that leave Cruz a widow while challenging her cleaning skills, but as she does her best to forestall the inevitable discovery of a crime, a funny thing happens: The inevitable takes its time coming. The story goes in another direction entirely, as Cruz takes over a restaurant abandoned by her landlord, while she and sister Lola Dueñas laugh off, at least for a while, rumors that the ghost of their mother (erstwhile Almodóvar leading lady Carmen Maura) returned to help her dying sister.
From there, the plot bends in several different directions, but the film doesn't always curve with it. Almodóvar speaks, as always, in the language of Hollywood melodramas, but he twists the language for his own purposes, and the deeper he gets into his career, the more comfortable he's gotten with making that language his own. In an '80s film like What Have I Done To Deserve This? or Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar would have let the plot build steam in the service of a high-camp explosion, but here, the emotions matter—the easy interaction between Cruz, Dueñas, and later, others. The comfort of family and friends in times of crisis gets the foreground; the crises themselves drift to the back. That's occasionally to the film's detriment, since it lacks the propulsion of recent efforts like Bad Education, but it's no less rich. Almodóvar is still one of the few directors worth watching just for how he uses color on the screen. But the pleasures have always run much deeper, and now they run deeper still.