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"BROKEN EMBRACES"
(2009) (Lluis Homar, Penelope Cruz) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A blind former film director reflects back on a time in his life when he carried on an affair with a beautiful actress and incurred the wrath of her wealthy, older husband.
PLOT:
Mateo Blanco (LLUIS HOMAR) was once a dashing filmmaker who lived life to the fullest. Then, into his life came Lena (PENELOPE CRUZ), a young actress who, in the past, Mateo casts in a movie and promptly accepts financial backing from her wealthy, older husband, Ernesto (JOSE LUIS GOMEZ). Mateo suspects Lena is a kept woman, though, having pledged herself to Ernesto years earlier after he paid to get her gravely ill father the expensive medical care he so desperately needed.

Mateo ends up falling in love with Lena and the two carry on a secret, yet torrid affair while making their film. Eventually, Ernesto finds out. First, he becomes violent with Lena, then he takes steps to ruin Mateo's film. A freak car accident blinds Mateo, causing him to break from reality and begin living as writer and adventurer Harry Caine.

More than a decade later, Mateo/Harry learns of Ernesto's death and receives a fateful visit from the man's seemingly deranged, homosexual son, Ray X (RUBEN OCHANDIANO). These two events prompt him to think long and hard about the events that led to his injury, his self-induced amnesia, and his eventual isolation. He discovers a son, Diego (TAMAR NOVAS), he never knew he had, learns of friend Judit Garcia's (BLANCA PORTILLO) betrayal he never could have imagined, and finally realizes a life neglected he may be able to get back.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Some people have to be dragged to movies in a foreign language. Many don't like the subtitles. Some are turned off by story structures that lack the predictable, beat-for-beat rhythms of Hollywood screenplays. Others miss the big stars.

Pedro Almodovar-directed flicks should be the exception. Yes, they have Spanish subtitles, and they often tell stories of people dealing with loss, death, and terrible dysfunction. But they also tend to feature such crossover stars as Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Gael Garcia Bernal. In addition, when you sit down to watch a Pedro flick, whether it's "Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!" or "Live Flesh" or "Bad Education," you at least know you're going to see some fairly adult content. Few filmmakers work sexuality into their movies better than Almodovar, and that skill is very much in evidence in his latest effort.

Titled "Broken Embraces, " the movie centers on Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who was once a dashing filmmaker who lived life to the fullest. However, our initial glimpse of him is as a blind and reclusive writer who goes by the name of "Harry Caine." On the TV news one day, he hears of the death of a local millionaire named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez).

That triggers all sorts of old memories involving Lena (Penelope Cruz), a young actress who Mateo once cast in a movie after accepting financial backing from her wealthy, older husband. That man, of course, was Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez). Mateo immediately suspected Lena as being a kept woman, having pledged herself to Ernesto after he paid to get her gravely ill father the expensive medical care he so desperately needed.

Mateo and Lena ended up falling in love, carrying on a secret, yet torrid affair while making their film. Eventually, Ernesto found them out and became violent with Lena. When she left him, he then took steps to ruin Mateo's film. A freak accident blinded Mateo, causing him to break from reality and begin living as writer and adventurer Harry Caine.

"Broken Embraces" is told in fractured time, with Mateo pausing to recall the events that led to his injury, his self-induced amnesia, and his eventual isolation. Almodovar and Homar don't quite capture the madness that I suspect both were going for here, and the film feels a bit muted as a result. Mateo has probably one of the most well-adjusted breaks from reality ever depicted on screen. He still manages to score ridiculously hot women, using his blindness as a pick-up scheme. He still manages to write and get scripts produced, keeping his income going.

And he still has people who care about him -- namely his former production manager Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novos), who serves as Mateo's assistant and secretary. They help him deal with his lack of sight and keep him active in the film business. There's very little point to his blindness actually, and it feels like one of those quirky, foreign-film afflictions that could have sighted viewers rolling their eyes at times.

Because so much of the film is told in flashback, we also never get a sense of what's at stake in Mateo's present-day life even though we suspect that Ray, Ernesto's seemingly deranged, homosexual son (Ruben Ochandiano), will be a factor sooner or later. This is after the younger man tries to pitch Mateo a script about a gay son who wants to kill his father.

On the positive side, Almodovar is a masterful visual filmmaker, and the images he captures here are often quite lovely, almost dream-like in spots. Cruz is a frequent collaborator of his and their relationship leads to a sort of director-actress shorthand that economizes her scenes quite well. Cruz does very little in the film to make both older men go nuts for her, but she doesn't need to thanks to Almodovar's loving camera and lighting. We are drawn into the flashbacks involving her and Mateo's ultimately doomed love affair with all of the interest and intrigue of a guilty-pleasure soap opera.

"Broken Embraces" is alternately watchable, yet disposable thanks to some "soap-operaesque" plot turns (i.e. a secret paternity revealed, a jealous husband out for revenge, etc.) It's always great to see Spain's armada of acting talent on display in American cinemas. Lluis, Novos, and the nubile Kira Miro could easily get major roles in Hollywood provided their English is fine. Lluis, in particular, is kind of like a buff Kelsey Grammer. His and Cruz's star appeal and the chemistry of the cast in general rate this film a 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed December 30, 2009 / Posted January 8, 2010


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