by Tony Dayoub
Forgive me for dropping names for a moment here, but sitting behind me at the press screening for Pedro Almodóvar's Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces) were directors Mira Nair and—if memory serves—Jonathan Demme. I say, If memory serves, because sometimes the mind can play tricks on you, especially when you start building associations. I had heard Demme's name being bandied about by colleagues just prior to the screening, and I did see him at another film, so maybe... ah, well. I digress. But the reason I brought these two filmmakers up, were because each of their cinematic sensibilities overlap. They all have a weakness for heightened drama, colorful backdrops, and moments that border on camp. As Los abrazos rotos wrapped up, and the last credit rolled offscreen, the critic next to me (who shall remain nameless) asked that loaded question I always hate, "So... what'd you think?" I gave her a non-answer, as I usually do. I wouldn't expect you to give me the answers to your "pop quiz," why should I give you mine? But she offered, "I thought it was a little too telenovela."
Well, that's sort of the point, isn't it?
Harry Caine (Lluìs Homar) , a blind screenwriter, tells his assistant the story of how he lost his sight. He was once a prominent director by the name of Mateo Blanco (you could almost translate this name as "blank slate"), who cast a former call girl, Lena (Penelope Cruz) as the star of his film "Chicas y Maletas" (a film within the film that resembles Almodóvar's own 1988 film, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios). He falls in love with Lena, despite her marriage to the powerful producer of the film, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). Through the story of their affair we learn why Caine now goes by a pseudonym, the depths of his bond with his assistant and the young man's mother, and how the events in the story ultimately sealed Lena's fate.
Cruz's Lena is a triumphant homage to the females that populated such pictures: strong-willed yet sensitive; in a position of power, after coming to it from a dubious background; beautiful, yet haunted. Homar's Caine is a callback to the traditional Hitchcockian hero, full of hubris, yet undercut by some physical or psychological deficiency. Even Rodrigo Prieto's grand cinematography (especially when the film arrives in the spectacular black sand beach location of Lanzarote) evokes the lush romanticism and mystery that typified Hitchcock and Sirk's disparately styled dramas. Through it all, Almodóvar (an avid cinephile himself) manages to tie in references to such films as Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (1954), Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), and Antonioni's Blowup (1966) (as well as his own films), elevating the film beyond its soap opera roots, while still acknowledging its sudsy melodrama without shame.
And herein lies the crux of of the issue. To accept Los abrazos rotos, one must be willing to see sentimentality as a once vital component of cinema that has all but gone the way of the dodo. One must be willing to accept that this is a variation on the women's picture—the likes of what Bette Davis and Joan Crawford used to churn out often, and quite well—that has also become extinct. One must be a fan of the Sirkian melodramas that used to be so ill-regarded and have now been reassessed in light of its appreciation/criticism of traditional female gender roles in society.
While certainly not one of the best films in Almodóvar's filmography—it's a little too pat for that—Los abrazos rotos is certainly not one of his worst. In what may amount to a case of a familiar cultural trope not translating well, this Hispanic writer found the twisty plotline did correspond quite well to that of a telenovela. And so what? When you have two outstanding leads like Homar and Cruz interpreting that quirky genre at a level that raises it above the usual fare, why not wallow in the engaging hot-blooded sentimentality of it all?
Broken Embraces is the Closing Night film for the 47th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. tonight, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050
Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center/Sony Pictures Classics