Director Pedro Almodovar’s work emphasizes many different themes, and for a man among the most prolific Spanish directors in the past half-century, Almodovar has an extensive filmography that hits on obsession and identity consistently. His work looks, often critically, at how the human persona is adjusted by those who operate it to get exactly what they desire, and often without consideration for reactions or consequences that may result. Sometimes edgy, Almodovar’s work is consistently great looking and dynamic. “Broken Embraces,” an upcoming release from Sony Pictures Classics, only continues this trend.
Almodovar has rarely released a film that has not been up for some award, be it a Cesar, Goya, Golden Globe, BAFTA or Oscar. In addition to directing, he also writes screenplays and oversees other elements, including set design, art direction and cinematography. “Broken Embraces” was nominated for both a Satellite Award and Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Film. It also was in the running for the Palme d’Or at the annual Cannes Film Festival. I imagine this high regard and acclaim is just as much for its director as for the film itself, but at any rate, this is a special experience to be had.
Beginning in 2008, viewers meet an older, blind gentleman named Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) who lives alone and is aided daily by his agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). Harry’s passion and obsession is film; he still writes scripts and occasionally produces despite his inability to actually view his final products. Harry is alone more often than not, and one day learns that the wealthy businessman Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) has died. His agent expresses concern, but Harry’s reaction is indifference.
His demeanor changes when a man named Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) shows up at his apartment one day, asking him to help make a semi-biographical film. Something doesn’t sit right with Harry, and although Judit is away on business, Diego steps in to end the conversation. Some casual sleuthing helps the pair decipher that Ray X is Ernesto Martel, Jr., a young filmmaker seeking closure for his father’s recent death. After Harry comes to Diego’s aid in a local hospital (Diego suffered an accidental drug overdose), the two spend time together during Judit’s absence and Harry details his life from near 20 years ago to pass the time.
Things shift to the early 1990s, where beautiful woman named Magdalena Rivas (Penelope Cruz), also known as Lena, appears troubled after hearing that her father is dying from cancer. She asks her boss, Ernesto Martel, for time off to see him, and later that night seeks some work as a prostitute. To her surprise, her boss calls for her services, and horrified, she hangs up. With no one else to turn to for money, Lena becomes romantically involved with Ernesto to help defray medical costs for her father.
Around the same time, Harry Caine is working on a big film called “Chicas y Maletas” using his real name, Mateo Blanco. Mateo only uses Harry when he signs literary works, stories and scripts. He needs a lead actress, and Lena, now Ernesto’s mistress, wants to try out for the role and follow her acting dreams. Mateo is immediately drawn to her beauty and demeanor, and Lena gets the part.
The film’s pace drastically changes at this point, as work on “Chicas y Maletas” kicks into high gear. Ernesto agrees to produce the film, mainly so he can have his son, Ernesto, Jr., keep a camera around and follow Lena, shooting her every move. The second half of “Broken Embraces” follows Lena and Mateo as they begin a passionate sexual affair, which leads to their leaving the area and to Ernesto releasing Mateo’s work in poor quality to tempt the lovers back for a confrontation.
There are more than a few plot twists and unique angels taken during “Broken Embraces,” including many I didn’t anticipate. It makes for a convincing and tense atmosphere, especially as Ernesto’s obsession with Lena turns violent and his controlling nature toward Judit and those working on “Chicas y Maletas” strengthens. Lena’s obsession is a bit of her personal neediness and a bit of her desire to be famous, while Mateo/Harry’s obsession begins as film, shifts to love and ends in tragedy. The only closure provided in “Broken Embraces” is that everything comes out by the time it is over, including the chance for Harry to reclaim his comfort and identity as a filmmaker, thus reclaiming his real name, Mateo.
Visually, this is a delightful film to watch and take in. The camera work is unconventional yet appealing, the lighting is traditional but refreshing and the costumes and sets appear flawlessly chosen and placed. It all works and flows without a hitch, likely thanks to the vivid coloration Almodovar implemented at multiple instances. The man considers film to be much more than entertainment; to him, it is art that communicates meaning, messages and themes, and it shines on Blu-ray disc.
There isn’t a weak performance in “Broken Embraces,” either. Cruz is masterful as the female lead. She steals most scenes she is in with her natural girl next-door persona, and relies on her off the cuff chemistry that she can generate with almost anyone to propel her character forward. Homar is convincing as an expert director, but manages to incorporate some charm and charisma throughout. He is multi-dimensional, being an artist, a director and a lover. His willingness to give up one obsession (filmmaking) for another (Cruz’s character) speaks to this. Gomez is superb as the guy who essentially blackmails the woman he loves. His helplessness and desperation are brought to life through his obsession with Lena, and Gomez projects a cunningly cold personality that cares only about how his affairs go.
Very little exists to dislike here, but the first half is rather slow. Thankfully, Almodovar more than makes up for this in the second half, and has his cast and crew to thank. The story is told in segments that skip back and forth between decades, so if you will miss a moment or two, hit your stop or pause button. Additionally, “Broken Embraces” needs to be watched from beginning to end. Watching some and then coming back to it the next day will only confuse you.
Well-crafted and well executed, this looks like another feather that director Almodovar can stick in his cap. The emphasis on obsession works on many different levels, and this is among the better cast films in recent memory. I appreciated the equal reliance on characters, atmosphere and overall artistic look and design. Clearly, this is something an experienced director grabbed by the horns and wrestled into his own desired shape and form. I enjoyed it in many different regards because there is both entertainment and artistic value to be had.
The video transfer to Blu-ray is soft and balanced in its coloration. The image remains grain free and creatively incorporates natural light. Brights and darks take turns popping during the 2.35:1 1080p High Definition video transfer. Less than traditional cinematography also helps “Broken Embraces” flow. Items in the background are distinguishable and clear, but do not distract from the action in each foreground shot. Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto helps to develop imagery for the each shot’s structure, and this sentiment is aided by quick but appropriate editing. Overall, a pleasant transfer to take in.
Emotional moods are connoted effortlessly via the film’s Spanish 5.1 DTS High Definition Master Audio soundtrack. Also available is a French 5.1 Dolby Digital option. The surround sound is noticeable but not dominant; it expands the film’s audio reach but does not completely take over. The music, however, featuring an original score from Alberto Iglesias, is well placed and equally emotional throughout. Dialogue sounds stronger in some scenes than in others, but as a whole the soundtrack is very strong. Subtitles are available in English and French.
A small but rich offering here, including several deleted scenes, a short segment or two where director Almodovar gives carefully detailed instruction to lead actress Cruz, a short film Almodovar directed titled “The Cannibalistic Councillor,” a few minutes filmed during the closing night festivities at the New York Film Festival and a question and answer session Cruz went through with “Variety” magazine. The special features don’t give “Broken Embraces” the insight it deserves, but are still entertaining regardless.
A Final Word:
“Broken Embraces” does almost everything right, and also does everything very well. It was a gem to watch. The whole thing is polished, yet it feels fresh and natural thanks to its strong cast and carefully articulated structure. I thoroughly appreciated both. Strong, well articulated performances are plentiful and balanced with artistic filmmaking. Almodovar can rest assured that he is just as good, if not better, than his main character in this film.