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Broken Embraces 

Melodrama, comedy and ongoing ruminations on movie-making combined into an entertaining package

click to enlarge Pretty as a picture: Penlope Cruz
  • Pretty as a picture: Penlope Cruz

Love, death, betrayal, revenge, Penélope Cruz, and movies, movies, movies: If this is all happening in Spain, it must be Pedro Almodóvar's latest film, an ensemble melodrama-thriller.

Broken Embraces is set in Madrid 2008, and we open in the apartment of blind screenwriter Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), as he is turning a chance encounter with a beautiful woman into a nooner. Caine's seduction is so shameless I thought he was faking his disability just to get laid. But no, he really is blind, though he wasn't always; years ago, he was a film director named "Mateo Blanco."

A succession of visitors to the flat -- his agent (Blanca Portillo), her adult son (Tamar Novas) and an aspiring screenwriter cryptically named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) -- as well as the obituary of an industrialist named Martel shifts the film into a series of flashbacks.

Back to 1992, where Martel (José Luis Gómez) is enamored of Lena (Cruz), his attractive assistant. A few twists later, and by 1994, Lena is well ensconced in Martel's villa as his bejeweled mistress. But what she really wants to do is act! So it's off to the set of Mateo Blanco's new film, now to be produced by Martel and documented with a "making-of" film shot by Martel's creepy son, Junior (later to be Ray X). Unsurprisingly, Lena and Blanco fall into a passionate affair, little of which escapes the elder Martel's knowledge. (Each night, he plays back Junior's silent raw footage from the set while a lip-reader translates the lovers' dialogue.)

That's just the start of trouble as these lives continue to entangle in the past and the present. Broken Embraces combines melodrama, comedy and ongoing ruminations on movie-making into an entertaining package, driven by the central mystery of what exactly happened back in 1994, when Cane/Blanco was making his last film.

At over 2 hours, Broken Embraces feels a trifle too long, and the last reel doesn't deliver the dramatic satisfaction that the film hinted was imminent. But the film is well acted, beautifully presented and scored with appropriately melodramatic music. 

The story is relatively intricate -- told through flashbacks and stories-within-stories -- though its characters are decidedly less complex. Nobody exhibits any surprising behavior -- their emotions, actions and reactions are wholly understandable. (Only Ray X remains somewhat enigmatic.) Most of Almodóvar's attention appears to have been expended making Broken Embraces a kaleidoscope of various homages and themes.

On the surface, the film is packed with winks and nods to classic cinema such as Citizen Kane, Peeping Tom, Vertigo, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn, Sirk, Fellini, Hollywood melodramas that feature staircases, and even Almodóvar's own work. (Lena is to Blanco as Cruz is to Almodóvar.) Embraces' film-within-a-film is, naturally, an Almodóvar pic, an arch color-saturated, sex comedy, itself a play on his own Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Running beneath the visuals are still more in-jokes and musings about the act of filming; film's relationship to "reality" (is the camera blind or omniscient?); and creating and destroying memories using cinema. Almodóvar even touches on less artistic tensions in movie-making, such as the power struggle between director and producer.

Need more to think about? Add riffs on father-son relationships; thwarted desire; role-playing and alter egos; figurative blindness; creativity (and its burdens); art vs. craft; and mass entertainment as a necessary form of self-expression. I'd need a second viewing to be sure, but it seems that no scene in Embraces is without some embedded shout-out to one of the above cinematic references or ideas.

Some viewers will adore this: Here's an enjoyable genre film you can easily unpack and refold into dozens of other shapes. (Those less steeped in Almodóvar and film history should be sufficiently entertained by the basic narratives -- or just gazing at the seemingly ageless Cruz.) If Broken Embraces is not particularly thought-provoking or emotionally satisfying, then at least it's cleverly amusing. In Spanish, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Jan. 15. Regent Square

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