Fri, Jan 08, 2010 - Page 16 News List

In the mood for love

Pedro Almodovar pays homage to the past in his psychological melodrama about a blind screenwriter with a double identity

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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One of the many pleasures offered by Pedro Almodovar’s most recent offering, Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos), is the opportunity to see Penelope Cruz working as a real actress rather than just Latin window dressing for a Hollywood feature. It is sometimes hard to remember how good an actress she really is, and in Broken Embraces Almodovar truly makes her shine.

What is particularly amazing about Almodovar’s achievement with Cruz is that her role is not as the star or the leading character, but as a catalyst for revelations by others. Cruz’s character, Lena, remains a mystery to the end, but a mystery that lingers long after the credits have rolled.

As with many Almodovar films, a summary of the plot that took in all the many ramifications of the story would run for pages. In its barest outline, the story is that of Mateo Blanco, a former film director who years earlier lost his sight in a car accident and now lives as a reclusive but much sought after scriptwriter under the name of Harry Caine. The telling of his story is triggered by the appearance of Ray X, a character he soon identifies as the son of Ernesto Martel, a businessman who financed his last film and whose mistress, Lena (Penelope Cruz), he stole. Ray X wants Caine to write a script about the story of his relationship with his father’s mistress and Ray X’s own role in ending the affair in tragic circumstances as a form of revenge. A further layer of complexity is added by the presence of Judit (Blanca Portillo), a personal assistant who carries a torch for Caine, and in his blindness acts as his main connection with the outside world.

This story is leavened with an encyclopedic range of cinematic references to delight serious cinephiles. Almodovar announces his intention to pay respects to the giants on whose shoulders he proudly stands with the incongruously named Harry Caine, a reference to Harry Lime, the main character of The Third Man and Citizen Cain, the first played by Orson Wells, and the second directed by him. This is the first of many obvious and not so obvious cinematic references, which include Cruz playing an actress who is a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and extended quotations from Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios, 1988).

FILM NOTES

BROKEN EMBRACES

(LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS)

DIRECTED BY:

PEDRO ALMODOVAR

STARRING:

LENA (PENELOPE CRUZ),

HARRY/MATEO (LLUIS HOMAR), ERNESTO (JOSE LUIS GOMEZ),

JUDIT (BLANCA PORTILLO),

RAY X (RUBEN OCHANDIANO),

DIEGO (TAMAR NOVAS)

RUNNING TIME:

127 MINUTES

LANGUAGE:

SPANISH WITH CHINESE SUBTITLES

TAIWAN RELEASE:

TODAY


There is no absolute separation between art and life in Broken Embraces, and while the constant referencing of other cinematic works could easily have become ponderous, for Almodovar this refusal to distinguish between the two is not so much an artistic conceit but a philosophical given.

The struggle between Harry/Mateo and Ernesto over Lena, in which the latter enlists his son, the future Ray X, to spy on Lena, could easily be yet another portrayal of machismo at work over a passive love object. With Almodovar, whose sympathies are usually more with his female characters, the dynamic is reversed, with Cruz’s Lena demanding the viewer’s attention, even though her physical presence never dominates the screen.

In Broken Embraces, Almodovar also gives free rein to his love of color and symbols, which he weaves into the warp of what might be described as a film noir soap opera. Images jump off the screen, such as the ornate pop art crucifixes that decorate the walls of both Harry’s and Judit’s house, and Lena as Audrey Hepburn suddenly donning a platinum blond wig.

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