Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: "Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish auteur who loves to play around with film genres, takes a stab at film noir in his newest, "Broken Embraces" -- with a little flavor of Federico Fellini's "8½" thrown in for good measure.

It's the story of a filmmaker (Lluis Homar), blind and lonely, who goes by the name Harry Caine. His name used to be Mateo Blanco, before he lost his sight and the love of his life, played by Penelope Cruz. (Both names, incidentally, are writing aliases Almodovar has himself used.)

Harry/Mateo is content to lead a quiet life writing movie scripts, with the help of his longtime friend Judit (Blanca Portilla) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). Then he gets a visit from a slimy fellow calling himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) who wants Harry to write a screenplay for him to direct.

This sets off a shifting timeline in which the Harry of today attempts to puzzle out the mystery of what happened to Mateo 14 years ago.

It turns out Ray X is really the son of a wealthy businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), who financed Harry/Mateo's film back in the 1990s starring Ernesto's mistress, Lena (Cruz).

Mateo and Lena soon became lovers, which prompted the jealous financier to have his son videotape all the behind-the-scenes action -- ostensibly for a documentary about the making of the film, but really to spy on his mistress.

Writer/director Almodovar weaves together the intersecting storylines of the characters, both past and present, in a sort of murder/mystery potboiler.

Homar and Cruz are a scorching-hot film couple. Unlike most such portrayals of filmmakers and their muse, he is not an egotistical narcissist and she is not a dimwitted twit easily manipulated.

Similarly, the portrayal of her businessman sugar daddy is not a black-and-white depiction of evil. Ernesto helped her ailing father get proper medical treatment, and seems to generally care about her well-being -- a bit too much, as it were.

A few aspects of the plot are puzzling. For example, why Ray X seeks out Harry/Mateo after so many years. And the film plays around with the notion that the writer's blindness is a ruse, but then just drops the idea.

"Broken Embraces" isn't among Almodovar's finest work, but it's a diverting jaunt through familiar cinematic tropes, as well as the filmmaker's distinctive psyche.

3 stars

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