For a filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar is oddly hung up on theater. Exhibit A: His leading women are dancers, actresses, and drag queens (as well as prostitutes, clergy, and transsexuals) all of whose livelihoods, and, sometimes, lives, depend on impenetrable public performances. Exhibit B: All About My Mother (which features all of the above) is dedicated "to all women who act and all men who act to become women." Exhibit C: His movies routinely include shots of plays and dance performances, audience reactions, and backstage intrigue. Exhibit D: Almodóvar makes theatrical demands on his own audiences. Scratch "theatrical." Make that "operatic."

Almodóvar films require more suspension of disbelief than a middle-school magic show—they're extravagant and sensational, with searing affairs, crimes of passion, impossible coincidences, and sometimes-laughable melodrama. The tearful denouement in All About My Mother almost undoes the rest of the film's tragic labor: The titular mother, whose teenage son was killed in a car crash while trying to get an autograph from an actress he'd just seen in A Streetcar Named Desire, is in Barcelona, searching for her long-estranged babydaddy so she can break the news. She meets the babydaddy (who is now a babydaddy-lady named Lola, sporting a set of impeccable burgundy nails and brand-new tetas) at a funeral. The howling sobs, the gushing tears, and the emotional accusations ("You're not human, Lola, you're an epidemic!") would make a telenovela blush.

However, Almodóvar's crazy excesses are a font of pleasure. He has created a baroque universe of recurring characters, high drama, ridiculous slapstick, and stories that repeat themselves both within one film and throughout his career. His is a fantastic, exaggerated, and always darkly comical fairyland of coincidences and cosmic justice, where the leitmotifs include:

Catastrophic accidents in the first act: In All About My Mother, the aforementioned car crash. In Talk to Her, a female matador is gored by a bull. In Living Flesh, an accidental gunshot turns a cop into a paraplegic with a hot wife—whom he met seconds before the shooting. She was a junkie being courted, unsuccessfully, by the square who accidentally shot the cop. The square goes to jail for the shooting and years later has an affair with the paraplegic cop's partner's wife. Then things get complicated.

Besmirching the church: Bad Education is about the trouble the tongue wrought (specifically a priest's tongue in his schoolboy charges) and features some hilarious simony and unhilarious death. All About My Mother features Penélope Cruz as a pregnant nun. The bloody Matador is, in part, about a young man driven crazy by his religious upbringing. Law of Desire's male-to-female protagonist was irrevocably wrecked by a pederast priest and says her rosary as she sucks on a cigarette.

Incest: The same protagonist was also wrecked by her pederast father. All About My Mother's son is a budding Oedipus before he gets smacked to death by a car. Bad Education's love trapezoid, including two brothers and a childhood friend and a priest, defies description.

Other major themes: heroin addicts, hospitals, buffoon cops, sleeping (whether drink, drug, or coma induced), deadly typewriters (one rigged as a bomb, the other a cushion for a drug overdose), gays (Almodóvar prefers the boys-will-be-girls to the girls-will-be-boys), and the architecture of Spanish cities, from sleazy cobbled alleyways to opulent apartments to antique churches.

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Sony has made new prints of eight of Almodóvar's films for theatrical re-release, scheduled to play over the next four weeks. His last three movies—All About My Mother, Talk to Her, and Bad Education—are his best, but Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for all its alien '80s fashion (Antonio Banderas's sexy-nerd coif must be seen to be believed), stands as his funniest. That's not clear until the third act, when the heroine jumps into the weirdly omnipresent "mambo taxi," driven by a guy with a bleached-blond pompadour, to give chase to a crazed killer on a hijacked motorcycle while everybody else is back in the apartment, passed out from a jug of barbiturate-spiked gazpacho.

Reviews of Volver, which opens on November 22, mention a ghost, an illegal hair salon, a corpse hidden in a restaurant freezer, and a village where the constant wind makes all its citizens a little batty. I can't wait.

brendan@thestranger.com