Adecade ago, filmmaker Pedro Almodovar took a photograph of El Golfo beach in Lanzarote. When he got the pictures developed, he could just make out two tiny figures standing on the sand. Intrigued, he had the shot enlarged, and revealed a couple locked in a tight embrace, lost in the landscape.
The image, which he called The Secret of El Golfo, niggled away at him for years, eventually inspiring the story that would become Broken Embraces, his latest film, which goes on general release next month. Although most of the action takes place in Madrid, the scenes shot in Lanzarote are crucial to the plot and set the tone for the whole film.
In Broken Embraces, the two main characters, Lena and Mateo, played by Penelope Cruz and Lluis Homar, stand on the same spot. He takes a photograph and Lena embraces him from behind, sheltering from the wind. I went to Lanzarote and stood there too.
Striated cliffs in shades of burgundy, russet and ochre frame a beach where wild waves crash on to the shore, with what looks like a slick of green paint splashed across the charcoal sand. It is the most extraordinary sight, and it is hardly surprising that Almodovar didn’t notice the couple.
“It was like in Antonioni’s movie Blow Up, when David Hemmings takes the picture in the park and doesn’t see the body by the bushes until he develops the film in his darkroom,” said the director when I met him later in Madrid. “The camera lens sees more than the naked eye.”
The beach is actually a volcanic crater eroded by the sea, and the green stain is a lagoon, linked to the ocean by lava tubes hidden under the sand. The color comes from the algae that flourish in a peculiar ecosystem created by the high salt content of the water and the composition of the rock. If you sift through the stones glinting in the sunlight on the beach, you might find crystals of olivine, the green mineral used as a gemstone. But you have to be patient and look very carefully: like the embracing couple, they are not visible at first glance.
“I’d gone to Lanzarote shortly after my mother died,” said Almodovar, “and the colors of the island seemed to reflect how I was feeling. I found it somehow soothing — not just the blackness, more the soft tones of red, green and brown.”
I drove away from El Golfo along a road flanked by huge volcanic boulders, and turned north into La Geria, the wine-producing valley that Almodovar filmed from the air as the main characters drove across it in their red hatchback.
The slate-gray, gently undulating terrain is scored with thousands of shallow circular hollows, each housing a single green vine protected by a semicircle of basalt rocks. I got out of the car and gazed at the perfect pattern, which looked like an immense art installation. I half expected to see the land artist Richard Long trudging towards me.
“I was knocked out by La Geria when I first saw it and knew that I would use it in a film one day,” Almodovar told me. That was in 1985, when he went to Lanzarote to have a rest before shooting The Law of Desire.
Back then, he stayed in a bungalow on Famara beach in the northwest of the island, which is where I headed next, as it is also a location in Broken Embraces.
Since my arrival on the island, I had noticed that the very mention of Famara seemed to make people come over all dreamy and misty-eyed. I got the impression that it was the sort of place where people come for a week and never get around to leaving. The long, curving bay, backed by dusky pink cliffs, provides perfect conditions for surfing, windsurfing or kitesurfing, depending on the vagaries of the wind on the day. There is high-quality tuition on offer and professionals, including kitesurfing world champion Kirsty Jones, can often be seen training there.