For the first hour of Broken Embraces, the latest soap opera from the flamboyant and prolific Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, you feel you are watching the director’s best film yet. At turns intriguing, surprising, mysterious, and human, the movie opens with an insight into character, memory, and personal history that’s keenly observant to the point of elevating this material above anything that has come from Almodóvar before.
Mateo Blanca (who has, for some mysterious reason, assumed an alias of “Harry Caine”) is a blind screenplay writer, who busies himself picking up sympathetic women on the streets to pass the time when he’s not being consumed by his latest inspiration. (Come to think of it, that could well be a straight version of our director, Almodóvar.) He’s being assisted in his writing life through the attentive care of a woman and younger man (Judit and Diego) – as we later find out, the woman is his former production manager, the young man her son. One fateful morning, a young man named Ray X shows up at Harry’s door, demanding to be seen. Ray X apparently knows much more about Harry’s life than a person should, and is threatening to write some kind of film, vaguely related to Harry’s past.
But of course, the star name in this movie is Penelope Cruz: who plays the character of Lena. Cruz doesn’t show up in the film until this moment, when Harry pulls out a photograph of her from his drawer to show it to his spooky, inquisitive visitor. But she is, indeed, the subject of the movie: Harry’s lost love, the tale of which we find out through an extensive flashback as Harry relates the story to the young Diego while he’s in the hospital, recovering from an unintentional overdose of GMBH.
The story that Harry relates about Lena – including her possessive boyfriend, the head of a powerful bank, as well as Ray X, the spooky young hopeful writer – eventually intersects with Judit and Diego, Harry’s devoted friends (one of whom has a fateful confession to make), and all the threads of the tale eventually come together as superb melodrama.
As my companion in the theater noted, Almodóvar is a kind of Spanish version of Woody Allen – providing knowing set pieces of lives of artistic import and modern relationships. Almodóvar just provides a few twists on the typical Woody Allen approach: more gay, more Spanish, more melodramatic, and more modern. That makes him more interesting – willing to fly a bit higher, and take a few more dramatic risks – and yet, like Woody, Almodóvar insists on bringing his films, at the end, back down to a simple tale of “slice of life” and the quiet desperations of his middle class characters.
We can see the tightly controlled tone of the first half of the movie loosening up as Almodóvar navigates his way to the end – jumping between heightened pathos and incidental slice-of-life. This modulation of high/low is a signature Almodóvar style that, at first, he seemed to be growing out of here. Though that’s a bit disappointing, the ending makes sense of what’s come before in a satisfying enough way: Ray X eventually provides the missing part of the story that Harry has been searching for: what actually happened that night that Harry (then Mateo) went blind, and lost Lena forever.
There are a few things I think Almodóvar might have done that might have tied up his themes a bit more neatly: for instance, why does Diego not hide from Harry, as has been hidden from him, the reality of that fateful moment, which has been captured, in delicious irony, on film? It seems an obvious opportunity to plumb Diego’s character, and its relationship to Mateo, that Almodóvar has missed. After all, in a story about history, memory, and innocence, the next generation is what an audience comes to care most about - and indeed, represents the concerns of a mature story-teller. Instead, Almodóvar seems to have become enamored of his recreation of his earlier movie – the film-within-a-film that’s his re-telling of Women of the Verge – which is a neat trick...but the kind of thing we might expect from a younger director, and not nearly as important to the story as the boy and his future has become.
Which is why Almodóvar’s focus in the last half hour of the film (after the momentous confessions begin) seems to be off – broader, scattered, with the humorous irony of his early films but lacking the confidence and subtly we’ve been treated to until this point. In the end, Broken Embraces is about how a movie director chooses to perceive – and edit – the painful and pleasurable moments of the past, as well as how we relive our histories through the lives around us. Almodóvar manages to keep that delicate tone in balance for most of the movie, and just a few more delicate scenes at the end to tie it all together would have made this a mature masterpiece, indeed.