By Missy Schwartz
Updated January 26, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Credit: El Desea-Lauren/Kobal Collection

There is a scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret in which a novelist, played by Marisa Paredes, discusses her next book: A young girl kills her father after he tries to rape her; her mother then buries the body in the freezer of a neighbor’s restaurant.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the plot of Almodóvar’s latest film, the Oscar-nominated Volver. The Spanish auteur has a thing for revisiting themes, as you’ll quickly discover delving into the nine-disc Viva Pedro boxed set, a selection of his most acclaimed movies. Take, for instance, the collection’s two earliest works, 1986’s Matador and 1987’s Law of Desire. On DVD for the first time, the twin explorations of sex and death both star Antonio Banderas as a disturbed chico embroiled in lethal love triangles. And with its plot involving purloined letters, cross-dressing, and story-within-story, Desire is an obvious precursor to 2004’s Gael García Bernal starrer Bad Education. (Similarly dark themes also pop up in 1997’s engrossing thriller Live Flesh, with Javier Bardem.) The genius of Almodóvar? That he keeps returning to these subjects without lessening the impact of his movies, which remain ever innovative and fresh.

And he continues to evolve. If Almodóvar was once the enfant terrible of post-fascist Spanish cinema, churning out provocative comedies like 1988’s still-brilliant Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a madcap showcase for the great Carmen Maura, as he ages, his emotional radar has become more fine-tuned. It’s a shift that the filmmaker proudly acknowledges, en español, in his rich commentary for 2002’s Talk to Her: ”Here comes the new Almodóvar, loaded with emotion.” Of course, before that Oscar winner, there was 1996’s The Flower of My Secret, a tender rumination on romantic abandonment, and 1999’s All About My Mother, featuring Penélope Cruz as a pregnant, HIV-positive nun. Both are splendid examples of Almodóvar’s much-lauded affection for women. Which, explains longtime producer Esther García in one of four terrific featurettes from the set’s bonus disc, is a direct result of how ”essential and transcendent the figure of his mother has been in his life.”

García’s insight — along with that of Cruz, Maura, and many others — provides a loving portrait of a passionate, whip-smart man. But other than his commentary tracks on Talk to Her and Bad Education, we never hear from el capitán, Pedro himself. Fortunately, his movies speak for themselves. Matador: B; Law of Desire: B+; Women on the Verge…: A; The Flower of My Secret: A-; Live Flesh: A-; All About My Mother: A; Talk to Her: A; Bad Education: A-