Broken Embraces (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film_broken-embraces_sm.gifAlmodóvar’s lackluster films all have things in common.

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While Pedro Almodóvar has made reliably fantastic films for almost his entire career, it seems his best work has come in its second half, starting around 1997’s Live Flesh (Carne trémula). Among the regularly brilliant films of this period, he has made a couple that, while not being bad, have been fairly disappointing. His new film, Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos), is one of them.

Almodóvar’s lackluster films all have things in common, and I can’t decide which factor, if any, is what makes them less good than his general standard of quality. I have two theories: either it is his films in which the main character is male, or the films where he focuses maybe too heavily on films and filmmakers. Almodóvar has always been known as one of the world’s best directors of women and writers of female roles, so perhaps it’s inherently disappointing when he gives his primary attention to a male character; I personally find myself a little harder than usual on films about filmmaking, which makes it a little harder. Both theories ring true to me (his two worst films of the past decade, Broken Embraces and 2004’s Bad Education (La mala educación), fit both criteria), but both have holes, too. For example, the film that seemed to restart his not-really-stalling career was the aforementioned Live Flesh, which features a male lead (Javier Bardem, before anyone in America knew who he was); there are still many films on filmmaking that I like, and it seems like if any director were capable of making one, it would be Pedro.

Broken Embraces‘ main character is Harry Caine (phallic imagery intended?), a blind writer/ex-film director, who has a run-in with a motivated young man named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano) who is not who he says he is. When Caine (Lluís Homar) figures out Ray X’s true identity, he reveals the story of how he knows him to the Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of his producer and longtime friend Judit (Blanca Portillo), and this story is what makes up the meat of the movie. Said story revolves the lovely Lena (Penélope Cruz, who never looks better than when in an Almodóvar movie), which ultimately leads to how he lost his vision, why he stopped directing films, and why he changed his name from the name under which he used to work, Mateo Blanco.

While most of the Almodóvar trademarks are present here (saturated colors, beautiful women, great female roles), its major failing is the (relative) lack of charisma of the not-too-bad Homar and Novas, and also the fact that everything dealing with the writing and directing of Blanco’s films comes off as ham-handed and kind of pretentious. The film is at its best when it is paying close attention to its women (surprise surprise), most especially Lena and Judit.

Ultimately, I’ll take a subpar film from Almodóvar over just about anything that is released theatrically any of the rest of the time, but I still can’t help but be kind of disappointed. At least he has yet to really blow it; despite my not being too excited by Broken Embraces, I am no less excited to see his next film. | Pete Timmermann

 

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