The film unites her for a third time with master director Pedro Almodovar, a fellow Spaniard she describes as family and for whom she has served as an inspiring muse. In "Live Flesh" (1997), she played a prostitute who gives birth on a bus. In "All About My Mother" (1999), she played a pregnant nun with AIDS.
Now, in "Volver," Cruz stars as Raimunda, a working-class wife and mother who deals with everything from whipping up an impromptu lunch for 30 people to stashing away the bloody body of a stabbing victim. She must confront her complex past and re-establish herself, on her own, in the present.
She's earthy, sexy, funny and incredibly volatile; it's the performance of her long and varied career. And the buzz is there, whether she wants to hear it or not.
"It's exciting and flattering but I also feel that it's healthier not to expect it," Cruz told The Associated Press while lounging on a couch in her airy, Hollywood Hills home, the two mixed-breed dogs she adopted lying on the floor nearby.
"But I would be lying if I didn't tell you it's exciting, all the things that I'm hearing in a movie that I did with Pedro, who is one of my favorite people in the world," she added. "We've gone through this together and we always look at each other when somebody comes and shows us something — `Look, look at this' — we look at each other and say, `Let's not think about it."'
Until now, much of the press in the United States about the 32-year-old actress has focused on her high-profile romances with Tom Cruise, whom she was involved with for three years after meeting on the set of "Vanilla Sky" (2001), and Matthew McConaughey, her co-star in the big-budget bomb "Sahara" (2005).
Her beauty, which made her the face of Ralph Lauren for several years, also has made her a favorite topic — those almond-shaped eyes and full lips, that lush, dark hair and graceful, petite figure. (Cruz took ballet and flamenco lessons throughout her childhood, she says, because her parents wanted her to have an outlet for her nonstop energy growing up in Madrid.)
And the reviews for her work in English-language films, including "All the Pretty Horses" (2000) and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (2001), haven't been nearly as strong as those in her native Spanish, including "Abre Los Ojos" (1997), which became Americanized as "Vanilla Sky," and "Belle Epoque" (1993). (She was also stunning as a trashy hotel maid in last year's "Don't Move," for which she learned Italian.)
Back in her comfort zone in "Volver," though in a role she says is her most challenging ever, she's getting nothing but raves. But just as she deals with awards talk, she's learned not to let reviews affect her after working as an actress for the past 17 years.
"I know what it is to be on both sides — when things are going good or when people are attacking you. I know both things," she said. "And it's important to be able to go through both things without taking too seriously any of it on both sides, not to completely believe all the positives that are written about you or all the negatives."
As for tabloid coverage of her love life, her body language actually changes and she becomes a bit more guarded when the subject is broached, even in a cursory way.
"You have to learn to deal with it, find a way to protect your private life," she said. "I know I should not talk about my private life, ever. And I knew that when I was 16 and have never changed that rule. If you don't break that rule, then I feel you are protected."
Cruz realized she wanted to be an actress when she saw Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (1990) and became obsessed with the director. Even now, despite their closeness, she says she still finds herself intimidated by him on the set.
"And I don't want to stop feeling that way," she adds. "Because we are very good friends and we should never cross the line on the set — between takes or gossiping, that's not the way I work and that's not the way he works. So we don't mix on the set, we don't have lunch together. But all the trust and all the years of friendship are there. I just have to look in his eyes and know that he's gonna be there for me and he's knows I'm there for him also, 100 percent."
For "Volver," Almodovar devoted an entire page of the press notes to singing Cruz's praises: "Those eyes, her neck, her shoulders her breasts!!" he gushes. "Penelope has got one of the most spectacular cleavages in world cinema."
More seriously, he adds later: "There isn't a more impressive spectacle than watching in the same shot how a pair of dry, threatening eyes suddenly start to fill with tears, tears that at times spill over like a torrent, or, as in some sequences, only fill her eyes without spilling over. Witnessing that balance in imbalance has been thrilling."
Cruz's capacity for intensity and vulnerability is part of why the American Film Institute paid tribute to her last week at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, two years after honoring Almodovar in the same fashion. Among the celebrities there to honor her were Prince and Eva Mendes, who said: "You make me very proud to be a Latina in Hollywood."
Salma Hayek, who picked Cruz up at the airport when she first arrived in Los Angeles seven years ago and has been one of her best friends ever since, described her at the tribute as "an ethereal creature — like a little fairy that doesn't quite fit in this world."
"I say to her all the time, I feel that she is a walking Pedro Almodovar character," Hayek continued, "as if she had gotten out from the screen and we have the privilege to sort of cohabitate with this strange creature that even though she fits in almost any screen with any story, she probably fits the best in that strange, magical world of Pedro."
AFI Festival director Christian Gaines said everyone at the festival is a fan of Almodovar, and by extension, Cruz.
"We think she's an actress beyond her image — the kind of designer gown-bedecked, jewel-bedecked, stylish, sexy actress on the red carpet belies the fact that she's a really amazing singular performer," Gaines said. "She happens to be a stunningly glamorous woman who tends to choose roles that don't necessarily draw attention to that. She straddles her own country's film culture as effectively as she straddles Hollywood's."
But that wasn't always the case. When Cruz first came to the United States for Stephen Frears' "The Hi-Lo Country," she only knew her lines and a few words of English.
"I remember situations like that where I was in the readthrough, I was so desperate to get more vocabulary and understand everything that was going on," she said. "And it's such a relief now after so many years and really, really studying hard — like in my last movie, (the upcoming) `Manolete,' the one I did with Adrien Brody — finally I was on the set and I wasn't thinking about the words. I was just acting in English without thinking every 10 minutes that I was acting in English."