Sony // 2009 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 1st, 2010
A tale of sex, secrets and cinema.
"Films have to be finished, even if you do it blindly."
Once upon a time, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar, Bad Education) was a well-regarded director. Now he is blind, and as a result he only works as a writer who goes by the pseudonym of "Harry Caine." Over the course of Broken Embraces, we will learn of the passionate love affair he had 14 years ago with an actress named Lena (Penélope Cruz, Volver), the complications that arose due to his affair, the now-infamous film that he made during that time and the story of just how he came to lose his sight. Mateo has avoided pondering these events for quite some time, but is forced to do so as the past begins to intersect with the present in strange and unexpected ways.
It's a bit challenging to talk about Broken Embraces in conventional terms, because it isn't a conventional film by any stretch of the imagination. The plot doesn't necessarily follow a tidy, linear structure, nor does it establish early on precisely what sort of film it's going to be. The movie is a collection of moments from the past and the present which have been pressed into a magnificently resonant and beautifully messy collage. I could go on forever simply listing the different aspects of the film's identity: it's a love story, it's film noir, it's a melodrama, it's a thriller, it's an homage to the work of Welles and Hitchcock, it's a study of emotion, it's a meditation on cinema...but above all, it's terrific.
The most striking thing about Broken Embraces is just how electrifyingly passionate it is. That may sound like hyperbole, but I'm quite certain that no other 2009 film permitted such unrestrained feeling to appear onscreen. It's in this regard more than almost any other than Broken Embraces genuinely feels like a foreign film; such unchecked passion will most assuredly feel foreign to viewers whose diet is primarily comprised of modern American films. The love scenes are not abnormally explicit in terms of what they show the viewer, but they somehow feel emotionally raw in a manner that invites us...nay, commands us...to feel the intense emotions of these characters. There's one moment late in the film that particularly floored me: to give you all the details would require spoilers, but suffice it to say that it involves a character pondering some video footage being played frame-by-frame on a large television screen. What truth of feeling is contained in that scene.
Watching Broken Embraces gives one the heartening sense that Pedro Almodóvar is a director who is genuinely in love with the medium in which he is working. Almodóvar is traditionally a man who makes visually vibrant films, but even so it must be said that Broken Embraces is one of his most visually arresting. There are scenes that contain so many successive shots that make one hold their breath in fascination that one may begin to suspect that Almodóvar is simply showing off. So what if he is? I realize that there are some film buffs who despise style-over-substance directors interested in demonstrating just how good they are at what they do (consider the many negative reviews on this very site discussing the early films of Brian De Palma), but I simply cannot resist the display Almodóvar offers in Broken Embraces. The film is a cinephile's paradise; chock-full of verbal and visual references to a wide variety of filmmakers while still feeling very much like a deeply personal work for Almodóvar.
The cast is largely comprised of Almodóvar regulars, led by Lluís Homar as the enigmatic Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine. Homar makes a strong impression from the very beginning, kicking off the film with a slyly entertaining seduction scene in which he demonstrates just how blindness can work as an asset for a ladies' man if they know how to use it correctly (and it's not by attempting to generate pity). Mateo certainly seems to be a man with some impetuous and even childish instincts (he proclaims that his name is "Harry Caine" in the same way that an impressionable 13-year-old might declare their name to be "Han Solo," as if he is fully aware of just what an awesome name it is), but he seems to be a fundamentally good person that we grow to care for a great deal.
Good as Homar is, the two primary female members of the cast steal the show. Penélope Cruz is technically a supporting character in the film (most of her screen time occurs during the second act), but she is simply luminous in the role. Early in the film, one character compares Lena to Audrey Hepburn. The comparison seems justified. Cruz is generally a very fine actress, but when I see her onscreen in an Almodóvar film it's easy to become convinced that she is the greatest movie star of her generation. It must be admitted that Cruz is naturally beautiful, but Almodóvar knows precisely how to use her in a manner that magnifies her screen presence (contrast her work in Broken Embraces with the glorified Victoria's Secret commercial that was Rob Marshall's Nine). Much more low-key but equally impressive is Blanca Portillo (Volver) as Judit, Mateo's long-time collaborator and friend. It becomes increasingly clear that Judit is a woman with a chip on her shoulder, and Portillo nails the tricky blend of bitterness and regret bubbling beneath the character's calm and professional exterior.
This visually absorbing film is blessed with an excellent hi-def transfer, as the rich, colorful images nearly pop off the screen at times. Detail is very strong throughout, blacks are deep and inky, flesh tones are warm and accurate. This is Almodóvar's most expensive film to date and it really shows; the director creates ravishingly beautiful images at every turn. Audio is excellent as well, with a vaguely Herrmannesque Alberto Iglesias score slithering through the proceedings with a diversity of feeling that matches the movie's tonal shifts beat for beat. Sound design is immersive while dialogue is very clean. Supplements are a little on the light side. A nifty little short film entitled "The Cannibalistic Councillor" (7 minutes) is an engaging watch, as are three deleted scenes (12 minutes). You also get a 6-minute featurette called "Pedro Directs Penélope," a 6-minute "Variety Q&A with Penélope Cruz," and a 3-minute piece called "On the Red Carpet: The New York Film Festival Closing Night."
The movie feels fairly scattershot at times, and there occasional moments that seem to lose focus. Almodóvar really seems to live in the moment as a filmmaker and as a result sometimes the big picture feels a little awkward and ungainly. To really appreciate Broken Embraces (particularly on a first viewing), you need to step into it and let it wash over you rather than standing back in an attempt to frame the bigger picture (not that it doesn't have one, but that's not the best way to approach it).
In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm still embracing Broken Embraces. It's a superb film and it receives a superb Blu-ray release. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Film