In honor of Pedro Almodovar’s deeply nutty-looking “I’m So Excited” opening in Buffalo this weekend, I have decided to revisit Almodovar’s last two films, both of which garnered 4 stars from me in the Buffalo News. The first, “Broken Embraces,” ran on January 15, 2010.
The early word on Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s latest stylish creation, “Broken Embraces,” was that it represented a letdown. This was “lesser Pedro,” the Cannes critics said.
Happily, the early word was wrong. While it might not achieve the emotional heights of his Oscar-winning “All About My Mother” or “Talk to Her,” it is involving, sexy and wonderfully mysterious. It’s Almodovar at his most cinema-adoring, and is certainly his most Hitchcockian story to date.
“I used to be called Mateo and was a film director,” begins screenwriter Harry Caine as “Broken Embraces” begins. He is “a self-made writer made by himself,” and he is also blind, the result of a tragic accident we fail to learn the details of until close to film’s end.
Harry is played by an actor I was unfamiliar with before now, Lluis Homar, and his lack of recognition so far in the end-of-year awards derby is criminal. For Homar pulls off something few actors can — he creates two distinct personalities for the same character, each believable and understandable.
In flashback, as the director Mateo Blanco, he is passionate, emotional and in control. As Harry Caine, he is quieter, more subdued, a man who knows he is forced to rely on others and is not entirely pleased about it.
Harry is visited by a strange, rather obnoxious young filmmaker known as Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), and the story he wants Harry to write is one that is lifted from Mateo’s past: It’s “a son’s revenge on his father’s memory,” and the man Ray X describes — a violent, powerful homophobe who destroyed several lives — is instantly recognizable to Harry.
The blind Harry’s face betrays his surprise, but he turns down the idea. He is not the proper writer for this, he says. “You are,” Ray X explains, “more than you know.”
The meaning of this cryptic statement takes up the remainder of the film. It involves Mateo, a beautiful woman named Lena (played, perfectly, by the en fuego Penelope Cruz), her domineering husband Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez), his awkward teenage son Ernesto Jr., and Mateo’s faithful agent Judit (nicely played by Blanca Portillo).
While the proceedings have been quite remarkable up to this point — especially an oh-so-Almodovar sex scene shot from behind a sofa, with only a rising back and stretching feet visible — it is the appearance of Cruz that takes “Embraces” to another level of intrigue.
Currently praised for a sultry turn in “Nine” and following a deserved Oscar for her unhinged role in “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” Cruz’s performance as Lena reminds us that she is truly Almodovar’s muse. Her work here is more subtle than her earthy mother and abused wife in his “Volver,” but no less impressive.
As we learn of her involvement with Mateo, and the making of a never-released film he directed and she starred in, “Broken Embraces” develops into a love story, a searing mystery, and a heartfelt drama of passion and its consequences.
It is melodramatic, yes, and not without fault. Almodovar makes a shocking directorial decision near the end, allowing a major character to tell us key details of what happened so many years ago, instead of showing us. Luckily, the film is strong enough to withstand the error. But it’s a rainbow of color and sight — any single frame could be studied for its composition and design — that is acted and directed with feeling and panache.
Almodovar is now in the group of major filmmakers whose work is invariably compared with their past masterpieces, rather than judged on its own merits. Therefore, a great film might not seem to be a classic — even though it is. (See David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” or Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046.”) Here, he has created a work about the power of the camera, and the glory of sight and sound, that rivals anything he’s done before.
“Broken Embraces” is one of 2009’s finest films, and a lesson that “lesser” Pedro is something to be thankful for.