Spain's most outrageous director Pedro Almodóvar was a hit at this year's Cannes Film Festival, with 'Volver' winning Best Screenplay, and the cast collectively scooping the Best Actress award. 'Volver', which means 'return', tells the story of three generations of women, who - though not always calmly - bravely face up to all that life has to fling at them.

Raimunda (Cruz) works hard to provide for her 14-year-old daughter and useless husband. When she is not at one of her part-time jobs, along with her sister Sole (Dueñas), she tends to the graves of her parents and visits her sick aunt Paula (Lampreave).

Although life is tough, the women solider on and scrape a living from their menial jobs. However, when terrible secrets from the past are dragged up - by their dead mother (Maura) - and when Raimunda's daughter is driven to commit murder, the women's coping skills are put under pressure.

In his past films Almodóvar has touched on many controversial issues. However, this is the first time that death, or at least the acceptance of it, is featured. One of his favourite themes resurfaces - women who fight back and refuse to become victims - with the only man in 'Volver' a lazy, beer guzzling, telly addict.

For Cruz, 'Volver' marks a return to working in Spanish and with her favourite director. In previous Almodóvar vehicles she played a prostitute ('Live Flesh' in 1988) and a nun impregnated by a drag queen (1999's 'All About My Mother').

Here, Cruz is magnificent. With her prosthetic posterior (Almodóvar wanted to give her figure more oomph), she is at her most ravishing, although it is her character's pragmatism, passion and kindness that is more attractive.

The film also marks a successful return of Almodóvar's past muse, Carmen Maura, who has worked in seven of his films, with roles ranging from a homicidal housewife in 'What Have I Done to Deserve This?' (1984), to a wild teenage heiress in 'Pepi, Luci, Bom' (1980). They fell out for around 18 years, but their friendship seems back on track now.

Almodóvar has called this film his most autobiographical work yet and he has returned to his roots, his native La Mancha in Central Spain, to film part of it. He also digs deep into the all-female environment in which he grew up.

Although death is a central theme in 'Volver', there is plenty of melodrama with Almodóvar's distinctive blend of tragedy and farce producing a highly enjoyable result.

Mary McCarthy