“Living one life was not enough”
There was only one thing on TV growing up that I thought was even more amateurish and unprofessional then soap operas and it was the Spanish variety. These actors played the parts so over-the-top that I had to wonder if it was all done intentionally. No way were these people breaking into the industry; they were horrible. The drama and the insanity was too much to be able to watch longer than a couple minutes, not to mention I was young and reading subtitles was not something I wanted to spend time doing. It is my conception of Spanish soaps, though, that makes me see Pedro Almodóvar as the genius he is. His entire filmography uses aspects of melodrama and tragedy, showing characters striving despite or failing because of these artistic constraints. How he can turn that over-dramatic genre into the deep, personal masterpieces he creates is astonishing. And with this year’s Los abrazos rotos [Broken Embraces], he proves that age has done nothing to slow him down.
A common theme throughout his oeuvre is that of the woman in trouble. His heroines are usually played by whatever muse has overtaken his sight at the time—Penélope Cruz is still the reigning queen, (How is she so underwhelming in English films? She is by far one of the best actresses working today)—and they always excel, whether in supporting roles or front and center. Even though every piece of promotional material, including the stunning poster, contains an image of her, she is not the lead here, but rather the main force driving the plot for Lluís Homar’s Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine. Just like Almodóvar needs a beautiful Spanish actress, he also seems to need a handicap of some sort, adding even more emotional and dramatic edge to the story. Harry Caine is a former film director that is now blind. The man he was, Mateo Blanco, died with his sight, relegating him to be a screenwriter only, never to see the celluloid again. Caine appears to be getting by well, reading his Braille, getting around town with his cane and help from strangers, writing with a young man named Diego, and still staying in the biz due to his agent Judit García. It is tough to decipher through his introduction where the film will be going—there are allusions to father/son relationships that do eventually play an important role—but once he discovers the death of businessman Ernesto Martel, the plot truly begins, drawing us into the intrigue, the movies, the sex, the love, and the betrayal.
Through flashback and story, the audience soon discovers the relationship between Martel and Cruz’s Lena, a boss and secretary that form a close bond when helping to cure her father of cancer. We then see inside a locked drawer of Caine’s desk, filled with photos and memories he has shut away with his loss of sight. Images of he and Judit on vacation start our minds onto a possible affair; however, the reason Diego looks in the drawer is to find an image of a strange visitor that had just left, director Ray X. It is quickly revealed that Ray is in fact Martel’s son, a past acquaintance of Caine’s, soon shedding light on why the deceased man’s name struck such a cord. You see, there is also a photo of Lena hiding away amongst the images, thrusting the story forward by going back fourteen years earlier, telling us the love triangle that existed, along with the deceit and horrible tragedy it soon resulted in. Repressed back into the recesses of his mind, Caine had done his best to forget about his previous life, instead looking toward the future with Judit and Diego by his side, carving out a new legacy to live for. All it takes is one visit from the past, though, to stir up old feelings that can no longer stay in the shadows. Caine must tell Diego the story, not only to ease the boy’s anger at his mother Judit for still keeping it from him, but also to go back and relive his happiness, despite the pain endured.
By going back and forth through time, Almodóvar shows the audience how the relationships between characters changed over the years. We see how close Judit and Caine are in the present, but then we see the distance and jealousy of the past. We know of the life Lena lived trying to break into acting, but also the jubilant demeanor of her love when a real shot at success presents itself. As viewers, we infer and hypothesize what might have happened to change these connections, and some of these guesses prove correct, but the bonds between them all have a much deeper and darker hold than what we see on the surface. Love may drive everyone to seek out happiness, but it is fear that keeps them all from ever really reaching a pure joy of being. Fear keeps the secrets hidden and fear makes their discovery rife with vengeance and hatred. This is Pedro at his best, delving into the core of emotive being, bringing forth one’s desires to show the constant tug between love and heartbreak, and how one cannot exist without the other.
Maybe he is so successful at melodrama because he gets talented actors to speak his words, something those television soaps can’t afford. Cruz is beautiful and vulnerable and the epitome of a broken person desperately trying to be whole for once in her life; Homar is magnificent in his dual roles with Mateo’s zest for life and Caine’s sorrowful heart weighing him down; and Blanca Portillo shows her range as the friend/possible lover watching as Mateo/Caine morphs between personas, all the while knowing the part she played in the transformation. Everyone, including José Luis Gómez as Martel, Rubén Ochandiano as Ray X, (going from flamboyancy—the running and haircut were almost too much—in flashbacks to the hardened man he becomes as a result of his father in the present), and Tamar Novas as Diego bring a sense of realism to the film, bolstering the leads and causing the immense tension prevalent throughout. The drama is high with a mix of humor—the movie being shot by Mateo and Lena is a comedy after all, an interesting juxtaposition with all the tragedy going on behind the scenes—and Pedro masterfully weaves it all perfectly into one, piecing together the broken memories and lives left behind, opening both ours’ and the characters’ eyes to what really occurred fourteen years previously leading to the tragic night that changed them all.
Los abrazos rotos [Broken Embraces] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.