Charming chamber piece about a family of strong-willed working class women in the windy La Mancha region of Spain, outside of Madrid. While Almodóvar semi-regular Penélope Cruz is the official star, this is really an ensemble piece, with Cruz's character's sister, daughter, dotty aunt, and even dead mother (Almodóvar's onetime muse Carmen Maura) sharing the story with her.

Almodóvar has long outgrown the high camp of his earlier features, but the darkness he's known to explore is kept to the background in Volver (Spanish for "to return", referring to the sudden reappearance of the supposedly dead mother), despite subplots involving murder, incest, infidelity and more. Thanks to certain key plot points, I saw the film as Almodóvar's gentle tribute to the classic "women's picture" Mildred Pierce, only with Cruz making a far more likable leading lady than the brittle Joan Crawford. With her impossibly black hair and sauced-up figure (the cleavage-enhancing outfits accentuate Cruz's own chest - which is lovingly shot as though it was another member of the family - though the actress' bottom was notoriously padded for the film), she's a force of nature even when she just walks across the screen.

Cruz's appeal is useful, because Volver is generally low on drama. It's a small film, with a tiny cast and few locations. It's still expertly shot - I don't think Almodóvar could ever make an amateurish picture - and as usual, the cinematography and music are as rich as the performances. But this light and airy concoction lacks the emotional impact of All About My Mother and the gravity of the director's other recent work. It's still a sweet little movie though.