MOVIE REVIEW- Come again? A mother of a ghost story

When your dead mother's ghost moves in with you, who you gonna call? No, not Ghostbusters– Pedro Almodóvar. It might give him an idea for a movie.

Oh, wait. He's already made it. It's called Volver, and it continues Almodóvar's tradition of always being surprising, even if it's not his most pleasant surprise. It's neither a laugh-out-loud comedy nor an over-the-top melodrama; but it's not deadly serious either, just so slightly tongue-in-cheek that it never gets heavy.

Almodóvar's last film, Bad Education was all about men, most of them gay. In Volver he returns to his favorite gender, women; and these women have stresses and secrets.

After visiting their parents' graves in their small hometown, sisters Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas), who live in Madrid, drop in on their elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), along with Raimunda's daughter, also named Paula (Yohana Cobo).

They find her getting along very well for a woman her age who's practically blind. Her neighbor, androgynous Agustina (Blanca Portillo), shops for her and looks in on her frequently; but there are rumors that Aunt Paula's sister, Raimunda and Sole's mother's ghost, takes care of her. This is casually accepted by the people of their village.

Back in Madrid, young Paula kills her sleazy father, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), and Raimunda hides the body in a deep freeze in a restaurant she's watching for the owner, Emilio (Carlos Blanco), who wants to sell it. She gets the restaurant going again when a film crew working nearby asks her to cater their meals.

Aunt Paula dies, and Raimunda is too busy to go to her funeral. Sole goes solo and brings back an unexpected passenger: Irene (Carmen Maura), their mother!

Irene– or is it her ghost?– moves in with Sole, who runs an illegal beauty salon in her apartment. Irene works as Sole's assistant, pretending to be Russian so she doesn't have to speak to anyone.

Raimunda, who was estranged from her mother for years, is the last to learn about her presence in the neighborhood. Agustina, whose hippie mother disappeared mysteriously the day the sisters' parents died in a fire, learns she has terminal cancer and begs Raimunda to find out from Irene whether her own mother is alive or dead.

The story unfolds methodically, more slowly than is customary for Almodóvar but with enough twists to keep it interesting.

Cruz has won some awards and been touted for others for her performance, which feels more Italian than Spanish. (A clip of Anna Magnani in Bellissima provides a clue to the inspiration.) She's good but not extraordinary, although she's likely to have an Oscar nomination by the time you read this. It's Maura who really shines.