Seeing a good film-maker at the top of his form is a rare pleasure indeed. And Pedro Almodóvar is certainly at the top of his form. For this, one of his most fluent and assured films, he has returned to his roots: Volver (pronounced 'bollbear', meaning 'to come back', in Spanish) is a celebration of the pueblo where he grew up.

The storyline may be fractured and at times puzzling, but it does not matter because the style and feeling are so completely right. It amounts to a kind of European magic realism, absurdist but shrewdly grounded in accurate character drawing.

Setting the tone

The opening scene establishes the tone. Dozens of women patiently scrub the graves of their deceased relatives. One of them, Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), is a cleaner who has moved with her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and feckless husband Paco (Antonio de Torre) from La Mancha to Madrid.

Her mother, Abuela Irene (Carmen Maura), died in a fire a few years ago.

It is a hard life made harder for Raimunda when she finds her daughter wandering the streets in a daze, having stabbed her father to death when he tried to abuse her. Raimunda hides the body in the freezer and then dumps it.

Not long after, it seems that her mother has returned from the dead.

Like Almodóvar's other films, Volver, too is all about women.

Three generations of women, born in a hometown that has spawned secrets and lies and blows an east wind full of ghosts, death and scrappy tenacity.

Struggle to survive

It is the women who organise time and make the meals, babies and decisions, or loan each other some money when times are hard.

At least that is how it is for Raimunda, her hairdresser sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), and Paula.

There is an emptiness in Raimunda, an inability to move past the literal and physical world and day-to-day trappings that are manifestations of her struggle to survive.

When her beloved Aunt Paula passes away, Raimunda's dead mother (Carmen Maura) appears, a ghost who - according to lore - to fulfil some promise in the land of the living.

We are now in the realms of ghost story, tragedy and melodrama.

Perhaps only Almodóvar could swing it and he does so almost seamlessly, taking us away from Madrid and back to his birthplace, where large skeletons in family cupboards are not unusual.

It is here that the film gains momentum.

Cruz is tough as the no-nonsense Raimunda and she is being deservedly talked up for an Oscar nomination for the best actress award this year.

Going beyond

Almodóvar focuses on her strong character. But it is not until the end of the film that we finally see some humanity and heart tear through the tight bodice and pragmatic veneer of Cruz.

All of that heart - until the finale - belongs to Maura and a dying neighbour in the village named Agustina (Blanca Portillo).

As in all of Almodóvar's films, the wealth of plotlines run parallel and perpendicular to each other and either work or do not. In the last act of Volver, they hold more surprise than usual.

The film goes beyond the obvious misunderstanding between mothers and daughters, that unknown quantity that makes them similar and yet different. It transcends focusing upon a bond that, through death and hardship, cannot be broken no matter how much it is bent.

There is no doubt that Almodóvar sees women far more accurately than most, but his sympathy never congeals into easy sentiment.

If Volver is about the influence of the dead on the living and the way we are all formed by the past, it is, like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, an emotional journey which is as comic as it is serious and as good to think about as it is to watch.