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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (Sony Pictures Classics)


By Harry Forbes

“Broken Embraces,” Pedro Almodovar’s latest brew of heated passion, cinematic homage, and twisting, multi-layered narrative, may be a few notches less involving than his other recent efforts like “Volver,” “Talk to Her,” and “Bad Education,” but even so, no one surpasses the Spanish director’s flair for and mastery of cinematic technique, nor his ability to draw extraordinary performances from his cast.

Star Penelope Cruz particularly excels as Lena, a secretary (and aspiring actress) who becomes the live-in lover of her employer, hard-nosed financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) at a time when her father is dying and she’s in desperate need of money.

Later, she auditions and is cast in the latest film of screenwriter-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar). To keep tabs on her, Ernesto agrees to produce. Lena and Mateo fall in love, leading to a classic triangular situation.

In a film rife with themes of duplication and transformation, Cruz’s role can also be viewed in triplicate: there’s her “real” self, the decent woman caring for her family and Mateo, the calculating woman she becomes to please Ernesto, and the character in the film-within-the-film that she is shooting,. That film, “Girls and Suitcases,” is a riff on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

The narrative flits back and forth from the early 90s to the present. At the start, Mateo is blind from an accident years before that resulted in the death of Lena. He’s now permanently taken on his pen name, previously only used for his screenplay writing, of Harry Caine. (Was Almodovar thinking of Michael Caine’s early role of Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File,” I wonder?)

In any case, Mateo learns of the death of Ernesto when he’s visited by the man’s sexually-troubled son, Ernesto, Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) who hopes to make a film the father who, he believes, ruined his life.

But Mateo/Harry’s still in demand as a scriptwriter, and his principal caregivers are his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo), with whom he was once involved, and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) who serves as Mateo’s secretary.

Continuing with the flashback, when Ernesto suspects Lena’s infidelity, he has his son videotape her interactions with Mateo ostensibly for a “making of” documentary, but actually to capture their intimate moments, and even hires a lip-reader to decipher their offline comments.

This being melodrama on a grand scale, violence and tragedy ensue.

Though it’s less true than it once was, Penelope Cruz – in Almodovar’s hands – stretches herself even more than with other directors like Woody Allen (her Oscar-winning role in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”) to name two recent superlative performances. Almodovar seems to finds facets in her persona that show her at her mercurial best. But beyond her good work, the entire ensemble is impeccable.

Movie references abound, most particularly Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” and there is all the stuff of movies that Almodovar clearly adores: the colors, the glamorous wardrobes, the dramatic camera angles, and the juicy elements of film noir.

(Rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and some drug material.) Print this post

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