I want very badly to call Volver the best film I've seen in 2006, and it might actually be the best film I've seen in 2006, but the problem is that it's simultaneously the worst film by Pedro Almodóvar in almost ten years, and somehow, that manages to quash it.

The bigotry of high expectations.

I don't like to look at the overriding themes of calendar years - it always strikes me as indulgent and wankery - but it strikes me that in 2006, the two most joyful films I've seen, Volver and A Prairie Home Companion, are both explicitly about death. It's not surprising, really; what better way to encourage a life lived in a state of delight than the reminder that it ends? (Certainly, the recent death of Prairie Home director Robert Altman has left me extraordinarily glad that his last film was a celebration of life, rather than a typically cynical exercise in misanthrophy). Of course, Almodóvar hardly needs to be reminded that life his joyful: even when his films treat on rape, abandonment, abuse, murder, you name it, they have always been blissfully and exuberantly cinematic, and this is why we worship him (those of us who do).

What makes Volver special in the context of his recent career is that it is basically a comedy. All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education are all fun and lovely and playful, but they are all tragedies. Even though it is propelled forward by the death of a lovely old woman, involves the wasting cancerous death of a dear friend, and largely concerns the gulf between a woman and her dead mother's ghost, Volver is at all points light and guileless. To leave his recent films is to feel transendence in the beauty of their anguish; to leave this latest is to feel simply happy.

I suppose that this is its "problem" - and I put problem in scare quotes because the film is still something close to a masterpiece - it is not so serious and epic, and therefore it is less cathartic. There is no doubt that it is emotionally rich, but it is also emotionally limited. The morning is that much more beautiful because it follows the night, we are told, and Volver is not so exhaustively wonderful as Almodóvar's immediately preceding works because it does not require so much from its audience.

But how dare I come this far along with only complaints? This is a great film. There are no two ways about it. It is a story about the emotional strength and fortitude of women, the great Almodóvar muse, but never has he made a film so wholly absent any men or masculine viewpoint (and let me be yet another reviewer to point out: La mala educación, his most male-centric film ever is also his darkest; Volver, his most female-centric, is his lightest film in ages). The seeming paradox of a gay man who loves women so deeply has been often noted, but it is simply part of the unbridled love for all things in life that so totally permeates the film.

I don't want to get bogged down in a description of the knotty plot, so quickly: Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas) are sisters whose parents died in a fire in their hometown; Agustina (Blanca Portillo) is a woman living in the town, tending to Raimunda and Sole's aunt; Paula (Yohana Cobo) is Raimunda's daughter who stabs her father to death while defending against his rapacious advances; and Irene (Carmen Maura) is the dead mother who stows away in Sole's trunk to resolve some dark issues with her daughters before she can pass.

Heightened reality much?

For all its metaphysical trappings, this is a very earthy and intimate story about the trust between generations and familial love. We figure out quickly that Irene's reason for returning is her shattered relationship with Raimunda, which is neatly parallaled by and contrasted with the fierce protection Raimunda feels towards Paula. It takes a long time for that to advance, but this is not a sign that the film is boring or slow, rather that it is honest: these are people, and people are scared and tentative. It makes their ultimate and rather predicatble reunion that much sweeter when it occurs. Along the way, Almodóvar fills the screen with short comedic bursts that have little to do with the plot and everything to with showcasing how desperately he loves women in all their glory. It approaches and perhaps even surpasses the treatment of the same theme in All About My Mother. Of course, the cast of Volver made history by receiving a joint award for Best Actress at Cannes, and it's easy to see why: every performance is note-perfect, such that it's impossible to pick out a favorite. I will pause to mention that Cruz is only surprising in the context of her American films; she has long proven herself to be a grand actress in her native Spanish.

The joy in the film does not come solely from the story, but from the bright, energetic look of the film. Of course, Almodóvar has always been a great director of color, and in this film his primary motif is red, appearing in every scene and virtually every shot. Red is easily the most emotionally loaded of all colors, and in Volver it is used to represent everything you could think: passion, love, death, vitality. I find myself thinking of an early scene during a funeral, where the parade of black-clad mourners pass in front of a bright red car without ever obscuring it; sure the imagery is obvious, but since when did "obvious" mean "ineffective"? And as in any Almodóvar film, you could write a thesis about his flawless use of the frame (no living director earns that 2.35:1 aspect ratio so consistently) and camera movement, but doing so would be a good way to turn this threatingly long review into a full-fledged essay, and nobody really needs that. Anyway, I couldn't do it on a single viewing.

A note on the title: "volver" means roughly "coming back," and that has all sorts of meanings both within the film (which I leave as an exercise to the viewer), and without it: Almodóvar's return to lighter material, to the rural villages of his youth, Cruz's return to Spanish film, Maura's return (and how!) to the films of her former director. Almodóvar has always titled his films well, but rarely with such economy of meaning.

And now I will end where the film ends: the final line of dialogue, which I will not spoil, is perfect. So perfect, that when I heard it I thought, "that is going to be the last line of this movie, and when the screen fades to black and I am proven right, I am going to expire of satisfied delight." About 20 seconds later, the screen faded, and I am still alive to type this, so I was not completely correct; but I did sigh, long and happily, and not that anyone cares, but I think there's little doubt that this is the emotionally truest ending of any film this year.