For some time now, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has been on a winning streak, his handsome and comfortably budgeted films consistently garnering critical praise and strong box-office from the arthouse crowd. The streak continues with Broken Embraces, though with somewhat less force: even in all its media-fueled mania, Broken Embraces cultivates the sense that its writer-director isn't working at the full creative capacity represented by his turn-of-the-century hat-trick: All About my Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education.
Almodóvar's narrative for Broken Embraces resembles that of his best films, like a mountain road with vertiginous hairpin turns. The Madrid-set tale begins in 2008, then bounces back and forth from the early 1990s. The constant is the protagonist, Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter still troubled by the events that led to his blindness and, with it, the abandonment of his film directing career. The blindness is, of course, also symbolic of the insecurity of "Harry"—real name Mateo—in dealing with his reality and his art.
In the present, Harry has created for himself a comfortably safe existence, enabled by his one-time producer/now assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her teenage son Diego (Tamar Novas). A screenwriter calling himself "Ray X" (Rubén Ochandiano) arrives out of the blue and won't take "no" for an answer to his request for Harry's help penning "a son's revenge on his father's memory." "Ray X" turns out to be the son of the man responsible for Harry's current miseries, which we learn as Almodóvar flashes back to 1992 and then 1994. Here, we watch as Mateo makes a film—starring gorgeous discovery Lena (Penélope Cruz)—that will turn out to be the figurative death of him. For "Harry Caine" has, consciously or not, named himself after the hurricane,”the powerful wind of fate that blew his life off course and makes him empathetic to survivors.
Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and costume designer Sonia Grande aid and abet Almodóvar's lush visual style, which—along with the elements of mystery and torrid sex—goose Broken Embraces through its generous 128-minute running time. This isn't the first time Almodóvar has explored cinema and its power to change lives, but for all its colorful visuals and narrative sophistication, the story feels more insular than ever. One could not be blamed for asking of this new arthouse piece, "What does any of this have to do with real life?" One could say the same of the exaggerated but artistically exciting noir thrillers and Douglas Sirk melodramas that inspire Almodóvar, but at least most of those didn't compound their insularity by being about film directors.
At times Broken Embraces seems like expensive art therapy for its maker. As the director's surrogate Harry puts it, "Everything's already happened to me. All I have left is to enjoy life." Broken Embraces is enjoyable enough, but all the same, Almodóvar would do well to emulate his own protagonist and move further out of his safety zone.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
In keeping with Almodóvar's style, Broken Embraces looks brilliantly colorful but a bit soft on high-def Blu-ray. All in all, it's a very pleasing picture, free of digital artifacting, film-like, and completely true to the handsome source material. It's hard to imagine anyone complaining about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which provides a full-bodied, well-balanced presentation of the Spanish-language dialogue and Alberto Iglesias's insinuating score.
The niftiest special feature is "The Cannibalistic Councillor" (7:34, SD), Almodóvar's film-within-the-film; unfortunately it's only presented in standard definition. Also here are three "Deleted Scenes" (12:20, HD).
"Pedro Directs Penelope" (5:52, SD) offers a split screen view of what the camera sees, and Almodovar behind the camera, giving his star direction.
"On the Red Carpet: The New York Film Festival Closing Night" (3:13, HD) finds Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Pena, Almodovar, and Cruz chatting up the event.
In "Variety Q&A with Penelope Cruz" (6:18, HD), film critic Todd McCarthy interviews Cruz on stage.
Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:45, HD).
Almodóvar certainly deserves the high-def treatment; hopefully, Sony will soon deliver his back-catalog on Blu-ray.
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