Saturday, March 20, 2010


Pedro paints a puzzle

By Edward Copeland
Early in his career, Pedro Almodóvar's best films were usually no more than entertaining trifles, funny and full of color but not much else. However, if any director has ever come close to the idea of the auteur theory, this Spanish filmmaker may be the one. Granted, each film he makes now isn't better than the one that came before it but since he leaped into the newer phase of his career, each subsequent work has fit into that same level of newfound maturity and fascination. That's why I'm doubly surprised that Broken Embraces didn't garner more notice than it did when it was released last year. Perhaps we have begun to take Pedro's new style and skills for granted.

While Broken Embraces doesn't reach the heights of Almodóvar's creative upsurge such as Talk to Her or All About My Mother, I do think it's his best since those, topping his fine, but marginally lesser work on Bad Education and Volver.

It also shows once again that though Woody Allen was able to secure a great, Oscar-winning performance out of Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, no one harnesses the actress's talent as well as Almodóvar does. I haven't seen Nine, but I'm willing to wager she was much more deserving of an Oscar nomination for her outstanding work in Broken Embraces than the nomination she got for Rob Marshall's misguided musical adaptation. Working in her native language, really allows her acting chops to flow and flourish, be they a comic, romantic or emotional bent or just priceless facial reactions as reflected following a sexual romp with an older lover that simultaneous shows disgust, temporary relief and then shock.

Cruz plays Magdalena, or Lena for short, in Broken Embraces, but she really is not the main character of this romantic thriller. That role goes to Lluis Homar as Mateo Blanco, a once successful film director, who still writes, though his skills have been limited by his blindness. How he became blind is just one of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that Almodóvar is creating here which, in its own way, is his homage to Hitchcock. The score by Alberto Iglesias unmistakably apes classic Bernard Herrmann works at crucial points in the story, which leaps between different time periods as it tells its tale. The story even includes a character who in his younger days (Ruben Ochiandiano) reminded me of one out of Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill, so Pedro could be doing an homage to an homage.

Without giving too much away, what sets the plot in motion is that Lena, whose father is dying of cancer but is evicted from a hospital, becomes mistress to a powerful magnate (Jose Luis Gomez) who arranges for her dad to be placed in a private clinic. After two years of boredom and unhappiness with the older man, Lena seeks a life of her own and auditions for one of Mateo's movies where she not only lands the part but the director's love as well.

In addition to Cruz, the entire cast is excellent, especially Blanca Portillo as Judit, Mateo's production manager. As to be expected in an Almodóvar film, it's full of colorful, vibrant images, but the amount of intrigue and suspense is a bit of a departure and he handles it well.

It's a shame more notice wasn't given upon the release of Broken Embraces, because it certainly deserved it and now that it's on DVD, it should not be missed.

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I didn't like this quite as much as Volver, actually, but I still found a lot too like (and I think it's a big step up from Bad Education as far as Hitchcock homages go). I'm with you that Broken Embraces represents Penelope Cruz's best work to date, in a career that has really consisted of nothing but good work over the past 3 years - it has been fascinating to watch her talent ripen and mature in such a brief span of time, given the fact that, as recently as 2005, I'd written her off as just another pretty face. It's clear that Hollywood hasn't figured out what to do with her yet - fortunately, there are filmmakers working outside the commercial filmmaking establishment, like Almodovar and Allen, who have a better sense of what she's capable of and can put her talents to proper use.
It's somehow difficult for me to talk about an art film. Usually, it's much easier with Hollywood productions, you're working with cliches. In an Almodovar movie however, you don't find cliches, but recurring themes and artistic obsessions. All I can say is that if you really understand films, Broken Embraces deserves much more than other productions.
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