Watching Volver, Pedro Almodóvar's latest poker-faced extravagance, you realize just how far his women have come from the days when they were living on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Take Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), who arrives at home one night to find her husband drunk, crashed out in front of a TV soccer game. A scene or two later, he's lying in the kitchen in a pool of blood, having been killed after trying to rape the couple's 14-year-old daughter (Yohana Cobo). An event like that one might have thrown an earlier Almodóvar heroine into a tizzy of neurotic soul-searching. But Raimunda, played by Cruz with sexy severity, is all business. She cleans up the mess with paper towels and a mop, dumps the corpse into a freezer in the diner next door (her neighbor, who runs the restaurant, had asked her to look after the place), and then, in case anyone doubts her resilience, she proceeds to open the diner herself, serving lunch each day to a 30-person film crew. (The daughter, meanwhile, reacts to all this trauma as if she'd just broken a fingernail.)
Then there's Sole (Lola Dueñas), Raimunda's sister, who's unsettled by some craziness of her own when she sees the ghost of their mother, who burned to death four years ago in a horrible accident. It's not a wispy, spooky, ethereal ghost either: Abuela Irene, played by the weary-faced yet winsome Almodóvar veteran Carmen Maura (Women on the Verge..., Matador), looks to be as flesh-and-blood as everyone else, and the director strikes such a diamond-hard, matter-of-fact tone of surreal credulity that we accept this phenomenon without blinking an eye. Sole, no dysfunctional slouch herself, wastes no time recruiting her spectral mom to assist in running an illegal living-room hair salon, passing her off as a Russian vagabond rescued from the streets.
Volver, a solemnly flipped-out soap opera of love, family, and the ties that blind, is Almodóvar working in a lighter shade of purple. The movie opens as borderline Hitchcock, echoing the tone of the filmmaker's bravura Bad Education (2004), and then turns into a kind of overly conceptualized Tennessee Williams, as Raimunda, finally meeting up with her mother's ghost, confronts the deep, lost, messy truth of her past. At one point, Almodóvar rips the rug out from under the audience in a most delightful way. Yet as artfully clever as Volver can be, will I be alone in feeling that the movie is more talky than transcendent? Almodóvar has made a comedy of feminine strife in which the women we see are ''healed'' from wounds we barely knew they had. Cruz, who looks stunning, summons so much more authority here than she does in her English-language films that you wish she'd also found more shadings, a palpable heartbreak beneath her goggle-eyed beauty. Volver has oodles of ''empathy'' without being particularly moving. Then again, I've never responded with half the passion that others do to Almodóvar, who more than perhaps any other filmmaker gets celebrated simply for spinning his wheels.