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For a film which deals seriously with issues like death, abuse, and estranged families, Volver (Returning) gets a surprising number of laughs. But it also moved director Pedro Almodovar to tears.

After a first screening in his home region of La Mancha, where the film is set, Almodovar was so overwhelmed by the euphoric reception that he was left speechless on stage, his eyes welling up with tears. "In all my years of festivals and premieres, I've never seen anything like the display of affection we got," said Carmen Maura, one of the film's lead actresses.

Almodovar says Volver, his 16th feature film, is the one that has affected him most. "[After making this film] I'm more fragile...softer," he told reporters in Madrid ahead of the release of the film in Spanish cinemas on Friday. "It's made it possible for me to look at death more naturally."

The film takes the Oscar-winning director back to familiar territory with a practically all-female cast in a story about three generations of women and their secrets. Sisters Raimunda and Sole (Penelope Cruz and Lola Duenas) live in a poor district of Madrid but preserve their link with their birthplace, a village in La Mancha. The ghost of their dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura) returns to resolve some traumatic issues, and much of the humor stems from the incorporation of the ghost--dressed in a housecoat, pop socks, and slippers--into daily life.

The film is full of the kind of cheeky jokes for which Almodovar is famous, and it is a celebration of the fortitude that allows some women to survive suffering and be happy. "I wanted to show the Spain which lives and faces up to things, even death," said the director, who is in his 50s. "La Mancha has a very cordial relationship with the dead...which does a lot of good to the living." The opening sequence shows village women cleaning tombstones in the cemetery. One of the women is tending a plot set aside for her own burial--a normal activity, Raimunda tells her incredulous teenage daughter.

Volver brought Almodovar and Maura back together after a 17-year split. Maura starred in many of the director's features, perhaps most memorably in 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. After that film, the two quarreled and split although they have never told the world why. Volver also marks Cruz's return to Spanish cinema in an impressive lead performance, after spending the last six years establishing an international career in Hollywood. "I still don't really believe that I was lucky enough to make this film," Cruz gushed. "It was like a gift from God."

The film's title has many meanings for Almodovar. "There are several returns for me. I've gone back a little bit to comedy. I've gone back to the feminine universe, to La Mancha...[and] to the maternal role as the origin of life and fiction," he wrote in notes for the film. Almodovar has often said that his addiction to stories comes from having listened as a child to conversations between women.

Mostly filmed on location in La Mancha, Volver seems set for box office success, at least in Spain. Apart from the pull of the director and the lead actress, village life is a nostalgic ideal for many Spaniards who moved to Madrid and Barcelona seeking work in the 1970s and 1980s.

The cast themselves displayed traces of this nostalgia, describing the friendliness of the close-knit community where they filmed. "After a day's work, we would see villagers sitting outside their front doors, wishing us 'good evening' and asking how the filming was going...[their attitude] was a lesson in generosity," said Blanca Portillo, who plays the mother's neighbor Agustina.

Almodovar, who won his first Oscar for best foreign film with All About My Mother in 1999, said Volver may take part in this year's Cannes film festival. "We'll have to wait until April to find out...[but] I know that [Cannes officials] liked it."

Despite his international acclaim since the early 1990s, Almodovar has never enjoyed the same level of recognition from Spain's Academy of Cinematic Arts. Last year, he and his brother Agustin, who produces his films, quit the academy in protest at a new voting system after years of friction with the authorities. Almodovar won seven Goyas, Spain's top film award, for All About My Mother, but his last two films, Talk to Her and Bad Education won nothing in Spain, despite winning many international awards, including an Oscar for best script for the former. The director has done much to promote Spanish cinema--he launched the career of Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas, and his company El Deseo produced the last two acclaimed films of fellow director Isabel Coixet. (Elisabeth O'Leary, Reuters)

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