Cert 15, 121 mins with subtitles. Rating: ****
While Pedro Almodovar may do troubled masculinity and machismo well enough, his best work has always been about women.
And so it is here with a film that takes him back to his own childhood roots in La Mancha, reuniting him with 80s muse Carmen Maura, and very much informed by the spirit of his own late mother.
With a title that translates as "to return", it meditates on the way in which the past and the dead exercise a hold over the present and the living; a theme announced in the opening credits as a group of black clad women tend the graves of their mothers.
After her disappointing Hollywood outings, Penelope Cruz has also come home to deliver a career-best performances as Raimunda. Her folks killed in a fire, she was raised by aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) in a small village but now works in Madrid where she lives with shiftless drunk husband Paco and teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo).
Coming home from work, she discovers Paula has stabbed Paco after an attempted sexual assault. Comforting the girl by revealing he wasn't actually her dad, she cleans up the mess and dumps the body in the freezer of the empty neighbouring cafe she's looking after to show prospective buyers while the owner's away. Meanwhile, her sick aunt passes away. During her last days, she was cared for by Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a cancer victim desperate to find her own mother who mysteriously went missing the same night of the fire that took Raimunda's parents. But local talk suggests Paula had another carer. One not of this world.
So it is that Raimunda's hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Duenas) is stunned to come face to face with Irene (Maura), her long dead mother.
Insisting Raimunda isn't told, Irene moves in with Sole, posing as a Russian emigre and helping out in the kitchen salon. Inevitably, the truth's eventually rumbled but if she's dead, what unfinished business has she come back to conclude? And if she's alive, why did she vanish and who did they bury?
Almodovar teases with the supernatural hints but it's clear this is much more an earthly mystery about family secrets, Irene and Raimunda both hiding a couple of whoppers.
There is, of course, a strong element of farce at work and, although Almodovar can't resist his use of vivid reds, phallic symbols and lingering shots of Cruz's cleavage, he wisely refrains from excessively camping it up, allowing the film's more serious notes to breathe through the melodrama. The result is both exhilaratingly funny and heartbreakingly moving.