Volverhas it all: ghosts, incest, murder, suppressed family secrets and a ridiculous amount of mountainous cleavage. In lesser hands, the movie could have played out much like an episode of As the World Turns (or the Spanish telenovelas former bad boy director Pedro Almodovar loves so much). With the deft hand of a master, however, Almodovar treats the tragic with the lightest of comic touches. His ode to the women of La Mancha (where he grew up) shows how the supportive bonds of sisterhood, the will to survive and the ability to chuckle at fate can defuse even the most harrowing of situations. While such an approach leaves one emerging from the cinema largely unmarked by the film’s tumultuous journey, subsequent analysis of why this might be the case reveals just what the director and his remarkable female cast have done.

As is so often the case with Almodovar’s work, Volver is about death and how we deal with it. The film begins as two sisters, the tall and earthy Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and the plain, nervous Sole (Lola Dueñas) polish their parents’ graves. They have returned to the wind-hammered La Mancha region with Raimunda’s teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) to visit their aunt, a cripplingly aged woman who the town folk believe receives assistance from their mother’s ghost.

When the women return to Madrid that night, we are introduced to Raimunda’s husband Paco, a greaseball who lasciviously eyes Paula as she undresses. Several days later, Raimunda returns home to find that, after Paco tried to force himself on Paula, she stabbed and killed him. While a few tears are shed, the situation is never dwelt on. In a magnificently symbolic feast of a sequence (as Paco’s blood is absorbed by the dense fibres of a sheet of paper towel and Raimunda cleans the blood-stained kitchen knife), Papa is thrown in the freezer of a local restaurant and rarely mentioned ever again.

Meanwhile, Sole discovers that their mother’s ghost (Almodovar favourite Carmen Maura) is no local legend. There she is, standing in the hallway of their aunt’s house. And when Sole returns from Madrid, a knocking from the trunk of her car reveals that the ghost has followed her home.

Gradually, family secrets begin to bubble to the surface. What’s ultimately revealed is more than enough to produce a whole slew of nervous breakdowns. The girls, however, never buckle. Instead, Raimunda and Paula start a catering business in the local restaurant and look to the future. The women turn to one another for support. Raimunda and a local film producer who frequents the restaurant exchange a few favourable glances, but nothing comes of it. Why would she want another man in her life? It’s men who’ve been responsible for the pain she and her family are struggling to overcome. As long as they count on each other and believe in themselves, the women know there’s no need to permit an abusive cycle to continue.

Almodovar’s entire cast is magnificent, especially Cruz, whose Raimunda is a hilarious and intensely sympathetic, high-heeled scrapper throughout, somehow managing to balance almost unending streams of tears with laugh-it-off determination.

Volver is a masterful effort from all involved. While a customary emotional payoff never materializes, the film’s play with melodramatic convention thoroughly confounds our Hollywood-cultivated expectations. For this reason alone, it’s well worth seeing.

Volver is now playing at Bayview Village (2901 Bayview Ave.) and the Varsity (55 Bloor St. W.)