Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nothing broken about 'Embraces'

Penelope Cruz in one of her Broken Embraces incarnations.

I've often argued that Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is incapable of making a bad movie. There's greater and lesser Almodovar, and that's about all that needs to be said.

Broken Embraces -- the latest movie from the now aging bad boy of Spanish cinema -- falls somewhere between lesser and greater. Still, Broken Embraces is a must-see for those who've followed Almodovar's career and for those who love the sensuous pleasures of movies.

In Broken Embraces, Almodovar explores a variety of interconnecting relationships, as he deals with familiar themes of lust, love and obsession. In case such deeply human passions were insufficient, Almodovar further atomizes his narrative, setting the story in both the past and the present. And beyond even all of that, Broken Embraces serves as an enticing inquiry into the very nature of film -- film as art, film as entertainment, film as consolation and film as an instrument of surveillance.

Tellingly -- and, of course ironically -- the most revealing bit of film in the Almodovar's elaborate story is a bit of grainy footage that we're told was shot by a rank amateur.

Almodovar, of course, is no amateur; he's a terrifically entertaining filmmaker with a buff's appreciation of the past. Alberto Iglesias' score evokes memories of Bernard Hermann's work for Hitchcock, suggesting the dread and danger that gives an Almodovar film its tension. There's even a bit of self-reverential humor with Almodovar using a film within his film to suggest his own international breakthrough, 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

As is the case with most of Almodovar's films, the story is too complex to summarize, but not to follow as you watch. In brief: Lluis Homar portrays film director Mateo Blanco, a man who lost his eyesight and now goes by the pseudonym of Harry Caine. No longer able to direct, Harry writes screenplays with the help of Diego (Tamar Novas), his youthful assistant. Diego's mother (Blanca Portillo) has a long-standing relationship with Homar's Harry Caine -- or Mateo, if you prefer. She's his agent and protector.

The plot begins to spin when a young man (Ruben Ochandiano) who calls himself Ray X shows up at Harry's door. He wants Harry to write a script. Harry refuses, but soon discovers Ray X's true identity. He's the gay son of a financier named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). At one time Martel financed a movie for Harry, mostly to appease his mistress (Penelope Cruz). Cruz's Lena landed a starring role in the film. Harry fell for her and a terrible rivalry between director and financier ensued.

That's enough plot to give you a feel for the movie's main ingredients -- if not its flavor. With Almodovar that's an important distinction because story is not always the main source of pleasure in an Almodovar movie. For that, we look to Almodovar's unparalleled cinematic facility, his ability to tease, suggest and create uneasy anticipation in the bargain.

Almodovar seldom approaches a scene in expected ways, and at a time when critics are hailing James Cameron's visual achievements in Avatar, it's instructive to remember that Almodovar's approach to cinema has a richness and purity that has less to do with technological innovation than with the director's nearly infallible eye.

All of the performances in Broken Embraces are fine, but Cruz's work as Lena drives the movie. Cruz plays a woman who's struggling to settle on an identity. Is she Harry's lover? Martel's mistress? An actress? Can she be all of those things at once?

Broken Embraces takes place in at least a couple of worlds as well, the world of real guilt and crippling anxiety and the world of cinematic artifice. Almodovar has crafted a tricky, sometimes elusive movie that's beautifully fluid in its movements. Like many of his films, it's about what we see and what we don't, about why films are made and why they are watched. Greater or lesser, it's clearly the work of a master.

Broken Embraces opens in Denver Friday, Christmas. Because of a glut of movies also opening Friday, I'm posting a few reviews earlier than usual.

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