Volver Spanish for “a celebration of hot.”

FEW DIRECTORS inject their films with as much guilt-free pleasure as Pedro Almodóvar. From his arresting use of color, to the nuanced and exuberant performances he coaxes out of actors, to his use of music, to his engrossing scripts, with their dashes of magical realism and Spanish melodrama, Almodóvar's movies possess a distinct capacity to stimulate you aesthetically and intellectually without beating you over the head with their charms. So when he makes a film as funny, smart, and, well, "Almodóvar-ish" as Volver, there's a lot to be happy about.

Volver is carried on the (lovely) back of Penélope Cruz, who plays Raimunda, an airport cleaner with a lecherous layabout husband, Paco, and preteen daughter, Paula. When Raimunda's matronly aunt and Paco both die in quick succession, a series of farcical subplots unfold involving a prostitute, an abandoned restaurant, a weed-puffing cancer victim, a secret beauty salon, the mighty winds of La Mancha, and—oh yeah—ghosts. Raimunda's dead mother, to all appearances, has returned from the grave and has holed up with Raimunda's sister, shuffling off beneath the bed whenever visitors come knocking. Throughout these events, deep secrets are hinted at and then slowly revealed, exposing the very human core that belies all of Almodóvar's elegant camerawork and plot conceits.

It's to the director's great credit that these farfetched plot points never dissolve into strained, "wacky" foreign film camp. Throughout much of Volver, I was reminded of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, as the film shares many of the author's central preoccupations: mysterious women, ghosts, secrets, music, food, magical realism, and regional customs and idioms. But instead of Murakami's neon-drenched streets and steaming bowls of udon, Volver unfolds under crystalline Spanish skies and howling winds, with feasts of pork sausages and mojitos facilitating seemingly benign social transactions.

Volver is very much a celebration—of homecomings (metaphorical and literal), of traditions, of celebrations themselves, and above all, of women. (Men play only ancillary roles here.) While Almodóvar deals with heavy subjects in Volver, he revels in scrappy triumph and the afterglow of adversities overcome. By doing so in such a nuanced, unpedantic manner, Volver winds up being one of the most enjoyable and intelligent movies of the year.