Considered one of Spanish cinema’s most prolific and important directors, Pedro Almodovar is the rare foreign artist whose name and films are highly regarded in his mother country and abroad, a man highly appraised by both academics and average viewers alike. Often (but not always) melodramatic tales of women escaping and looking for reconciliation, Almodovar’s films are unfailingly suffused with cinematic lyricism, bold colors, and unique music complimenting often exceptional performances from Spanish (Carmen Maura) or Argentine (Cecilia Roth) actresses. In Broken Embraces, Almodovar uses his current muse Penelope Cruz for a fourth time (their previous collaboration was the acclaimed Volver) as an actress occupying the center of a mystery involving a blind director being blackmailed by someone from his past. Broken Embraces is a film noir updated: it is emotionally hard without the cynicism and brilliantly bright in place of noir’s expected shadows.
In Broken Embraces there are shadows aplenty: Mateo (played by Lluis Homar) recounts to his (fresh out of a small coma) son the story of how he came to be blinded while making a film with his lover from the past, Lena (Cruz), the film itself financed by Lena’s rich and put-upon husband who has plans of his own for Lena’s future. Over the course of the film we learn of how Lena’s husband spies on her, how Mateo and Lena carry out their affair while Mateo’s lover and film editor, Judit, watches in the background, and how every character in the film desires not the one they are with. The film contains a film within a film in the making, an idea Almodovar has exploited before (notably in his Bad Education) and here his “inner film” often references his other works, notably his famous Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Flower of My Secret. While this self-referencing lends the film an extra, meta-narrative layer it draws attention to Broken Embraces chief flaw: its laborious if interesting plot execution and how Almodovar may perhaps be running out of ideas.
Almodovar clearly still loves women and his hand, if heavy occasionally, still shows he knows how to write dialogue and interesting characters for them. Penelope Cruz is charming, sexy, and full of fire but her character Lena remains something of an enigma. The same it must be said, however, is also unfortunately true of Mateo: Almodovar has again shown his utter ineptness and confusion when dealing with dynamic male characters. He simply hasn’t yet figured out how to or is uninterested in writing one which is as three-dimensional as his female characters. One gets the sense that his lack of skill (or interest) exposes Almodovar’s indifference or contemptuous opinion of men (one need only contrast his films told from the perspective of women to those told from the perspective of men to see where his sympathies reside), something many reviewers have pointed out before.
All said, Broken Embraces is an interesting film and for most of its running time, engrossing. What brings it down is both the weight of Almodovar’s own superior other efforts which he nostalgically includes in this film and his lack of levity at telling this story, let alone ending it (the film has what could be called three endings, only one of them really satisfying). While in many ways superior to your average Hollywood melodrama, Broken Embraces ultimately is a film of charming unevenness and showing laboriousness: Almodovar continues to be more interesting that Woody Allen has been in decades but has done better before. Currently at the Tivoli Cinema in Kansas City, Missouri.