Though we may be through with the past, the past isn't through with us.

With "Volver," Pedro Almodóvar has returned. In this film, Spain's premier director of films like "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her" makes a star vehicle for Penélope Cruz. While it may not be the apex of his career, Almodóvar won't disappoint you here.

"Volver" literally translates to "return" in Spanish, and this idea haunts the film. Almodóvar has experienced a return himself, moving back to a female-focused narrative after "Bad Education." Carmen Maura's presence as the mysterious mother is even more significant; she was a fixture in Almodóvar's films in the '80s like "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," but the two experienced a falling out and had not worked together since.

The film opens in a cemetery. Women are scrubbing the graves of the deceased, and in that moment the stage is set. Though the dead may be physically gone, in the minds of their family and friends they are still ever present.

In the windswept town of their childhood, Raimunda (Cruz) and her sister Sole return to see their ailing aunt, who raised them after their parents died in a fire. Their aunt refers to their mother Irene as if she was a living presence, which becomes more curious upon discovering an exercise bicycle their aunt couldn't have used.

Back in Madrid, Raimunda lives with her boyfriend Paco and daughter Paula. When Paco loses his job, he goes crazy and assaults Paula, and in her panic Paula kills him. Raimunda then comes in to clean up the mess, hiding Paco in the freezer.

The male characters of "Volver" are not trusted and kept at a distance when present. After Paco's death, Raimunda answers the door and a man at the door comments on a bit of blood on her neck. "Women's troubles," she replies, and she isn't lying. She is dealing with problems that women face and men are simply unable to understand.

Throughout the film, Almodóvar focuses the camera on Raimunda's breasts and hips (Cruz gained weight for the role and wore a prosthetic butt), but he does not sexually objectify her. Real women have curves; Cruz's vitality and life force are a source of strength for Raimunda, and are intrinsic to who she is.

As the film progresses, Raimunda gains confidence. She doesn't need a man to be economically and emotionally self-sufficient, and she empowers her daughter and friends in the process.

But all is not well beneath the surface. Paco's corpse in the freezer must be guarded constantly. Then, there's the question of her mother Irene, who may not be dead after all.

Like the windswept town of her childhood, the peace that Raimunda desires is not present. The past keeps rearing its head, despite her best efforts to keep it at bay. Worst of all, the patterns of her childhood that she vowed never to repeat are threatening to take the same destructive course through her own life.

Pushing away the realities of past and present life doesn't make these problems go away, but continues to make them worse. Ultimately, the past will continue to return until its effects are observed and understood?then they can be overcome.

Cruz, now an Oscar nominee for this role, has been somewhat misunderstood by American audiences. She is often placed in bland Hollywood roles solely for her beauty, and her limited English ability doesn't allow her to rise above the material. In Spanish, her true acting abilities fully emerge. In "Volver," Cruz gets the best acting challenge of her career and shines throughout. This should be the moment she really becomes a star.

That is, if you're willing to give her a chance to show you.

"Volver" is now playing at the Eveningstar Cinema at 1:30, 4, 6:30, and 9 p.m., and the Movies on Exchange, Portland. Check out www.eveningstarcinema.com and www.moviesonexchange.com for more information.