Missy Schwartz
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

It didn’t take long for Pedro Almodóvar to realize that Penélope Cruz was going to deliver one hell of a performance in Volver. He sensed it on the first day of shooting when, in character as the tough, working-class single mom Raimunda, Cruz sat chitchatting with her sister, daughter, and senile old aunt. As she munched on cookies, the actress gently brushed away some crumbs that had fallen onto the dining room table. That simple, unscripted gesture of tidiness convinced the director that something special was happening. ”She was completely in contact with the soul of the character,” the Spanish director recalls. ”From that moment, I knew she would do extraordinary work.”

No arguments here. In Volver, a tragi-dramedy about mothers, daughters, and some not-so-nice men who try to come between them, Cruz proves that her wondrous turn in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother was no fluke, and that despite all those Hollywood misfires, she is, in fact, a splendidly gifted actress. Throughout the movie, she juggles a dizzying range of emotions — fear, exhilaration, fierce maternal love — often in the space of a single scene. With her hair swept into a tousled updo, her eyes lined heavily in black kohl, and her svelte frame made curvier by much-discussed bum cushioning, the Madrid native radiates a womanly sexiness reminiscent of such great European actresses as Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

To earn her first Oscar nomination for a role she honed with her longtime friend Almodóvar should be doubly gratifying for Cruz, 32. ”I felt so alive working with Pedro,” she said last fall. ”This movie has given me so much happiness as a human being, not just as an actress. It’s a time of my life that I will remember when I am an 80-year-old woman.”

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