What can be said about Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film Los abrazos rotos, or by its English title, Broken Embraces? Well, it’s a comedy, it’s a mystery, it’s a romance, it’s a family drama and it’s a tale of vengeance. It’s all these things and none of them, told in that signature Almodóvar style where the way you tell a story trumps even the fact you’re telling a story. The film proceeds at its own pace, and is rather fluid with the narrative. It seems to enjoy leading you around the question at the heart of the film and all the while you don’t ever really think about asking it. It’s weird, I know, but that’s Almodóvar in a nutshell. The guy’s either a cinematic wizard, or I’m maybe too thick to follow along.
Let’s presume option number one for a minute because at the very least Almodóvar gives us a film about filmmaking that miraculously feels neither pretentious nor self-congratulatory. Even the best films about people making movies cast off this air that if you’re not working in the world of cinema then you’re not realizing you’re life to the fullest. After all, everybody wants to make movies, hang out on the set, and tap on their Blackberry’s all day until the scene is finally set and the director’s ready to call action. But Broken Embraces is not completely innocent in this. Almodóvar’s muse Penélope Cruz plays Lena, an office worker that marries a rich tycoon Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), whose acting ambitions lead her on a dangerous path.
But that’s not how it starts. At the beginning of the film, we meet Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter living a quiet life of anonymity, his only visitors being an old colleague named Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) who acts as Harry’s secretary. Harry one day learns of Martel’s death and soon after receives a visit from the mysterious Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano). The visit leads Harry to recall a period 14 years earlier when he was noted filmmaker Mateo Blanco, working on a romantic comedy being funded by one Ernesto Martel. Martel’s wife Lena becomes Mateo’s leading lady both on screen and off, and a story of personal destruction through lies, jealousy and betrayal is revealed.
It’s a wonderful labyrinth for what is, in essence, a simple story. The trick is though that you really have no idea where it’s all going or how these varying plot threads tie together from one to the other. The talent of Almodóvar is that he’s making you focus on the clues while he’s telling a story. You’re so focused on what this means and what that means that it’s hard to sit back and take in the film as a whole until after the credits role, and then you really appreciate the care Almodóvar took in weaving together the story. What seems like randomness in the beginning becomes neatly sewn together in the end. The film is about a half hour over before you realize just how interconnected Harry and Lena’s stories are. Of course they are interconnected, but for a second there you wonder what exactly an office temp in ’94 and a blind screenwriter in 2008 have in common.
Powerful performances help sell the nearly soap opera like premise. Naturally Penélope Cruz is a vision that enchants every moment she’s on screen, but fortunately she’s also a tremendous actress. How can you tell? For the movie inside the movie, a rom-com translated hilariously as ‘Girls And Suitcases’, she has to act like a mediocre actress, and you believe it.
I also enjoyed Lluís Homar a lot because as Harry/Mateo states in the opening narration he’s lived his life as two different people, and Homar really plays that up. In the end, there’s some reconciliation between the two personas and it takes a nuanced actor to play a character three different ways. I dare not say anymore because as might be interpreted from the film’s message, some secrets are best left hidden. Embrace Broken Embraces with as clean a slate as possible, and you’ll be well rewarded. It’s a first rate film on just about every level.