“Las películas, hay que terminarlas, aunque esté a ciegas.”
This Sunday, some friends and I went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), starring Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, & alii. It was good, not as good as Almodóvar can be, but I left very satisfied despite its sometimes difficult-to-follow presentation and plot.
Mateo (Lluis Homar) is a screenwriter and director. He is also named Harry. He was involved with Lena (Penélope Cruz) in 1994, who was the star of his film. Lena was also the live-in mistress of Enrique Martel (José Luis Gómez), who is the movie’s producer. Martel is obsessive, jealous and violent and causes a car crash in which Lena is killed and Mateo is blinded. From then on he uses the pseudonym Harry Caine. In 2009, Harry receives a visit from Martel’s son, Enrique Martel (Rubén Ochandiano), aka Ray X, which prompts Mateo/Harry to recount the story to his son Alex (Alejo Sauras). Oops, we don’t know Alex is his son yet (even though it’s So Obvious). For now he’s the son of Judit (Blanca Portillo), who’s his longtime friend.
It was pretty hard to follow on screen, because it was presented in a very non-linear fashion, but then I wouldn’t expect anything less from Almodóvar. What we have here is a culebrón, a soap opera.
(Linguistic aside: culebrón means ‘soap opera’ but literally translates as ‘big snake’. i can’t think of a better example of why every language is unique and can’t be replaced by another. While culebrón and ‘soap opera’ might have the same referent, they both are terms that carry very different stories of how that referent is perceived by the speaker and by the speaker’s culture. Language preservation. Very important. Now, we return to our feature presentation…)
Like I said, it was good. Not his best, but he’s made some pretty questionable films before, so it was far from his worst. Penélope Cruz was stunningly gorgeous and a wonderful actress, sicut semper. She was even good in the train wreck that was Vicky Cristina Barcelona (won’t go there). My friend commented that she was probably even good in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, though I don’t think either of us care to put that to the test by actually watching it.
The main thing I was struck by as I left the theatre was how much darker than normal the movie was for Almodóvar. That might be a surprising assertion to make, given the average Almodóvar film. In his last four films we have death from AIDS, death of a child, persistent vegetative states, rape, incest, pedophilia, suicide, parricide, and much, much more! But Almodóvar’s style, and I would say Almodóvar’s genius, is to present all of these subjects in a near comedic light, without detracting from the seriousness of the subjects (though, I will admit, every serious criticism of Almodóvar I’ve heard has had to do with him making light of horrific events; but I don’t agree with that). Perhaps he’s taken some of that criticism to heart, because inasmuch as Almodóvar can, he tends to present the more terrible elements of this story in a very blunt way. Take a look at the trailer to get an idea of the tone:
The movie wasn’t, however, without its lighter moments. Some of the interaction between Mateo/Harry and his Judit’s son Alex was very entertaining, especially when discussing a potential vampire movie they’d write together. The lightest part of the movie, and possibly the best part of the movie, is the film-within-a-film that they are making.
As Almodóvar has progressed in his work, making several iconic films and working with several iconic actors and actresses, he has referenced himself more and more in his own work. It was in that strain, then, that the film-within-a-film was actually Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), Almodóvar’s 1988 comedic gem. Lena (Cruz) plays the role originally played by Carmen Maura, and the other actresses are some of the same from the original film, a little worse for wear twenty years on. Entire scenes are reënacted. Loved it.
Another Almodóvar trope present in this film are some underdeveloped characters. At his best, he avoids this, but this is part of why Los abrazos rotos isn’t his best movie.
First, we have Mateo’s Harry’s Judit’s son Alex. Most of his screen time is pretty contrived. His presense is almost entirely used either as someone to whom Mateo/Harry can tell his story, or to set this up. Perhaps I feel like they should have paid more attention to him because he’s played by hot Majorcan actor Alejo Sauras. Such eye candy deserves a better part. Isn’t that what filmmaking is all about?!
The other underdeveloped character was Enrique Martel’s son, Enrique Martel, aka Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano). So many names! First off, he’s a huge creep. This isn’t a problem, except that it draws a lot of attention to a character who doesn’t really do much in the movie. He’s also the film’s only gay character, and he’s pretty much a walking stereotype. Effeminate, scheming, inscrutable. He might as well be a character from Cruising, or that ugly, unhappy man from Boys in the Band. From any other director, I would be offended. Almodóvar has enough complex characters in his films that I can trust him not to be ignorant or harbor ill-will. Plus, he looks for the campy elements in everyone. Still, I left the movie wondering why we didn’t get a little more complete a picture of this one character, given the amount of attention he gets.
One thing that Almodóvar does very well is endings. In Volver, Penélope Cruz stands with her daughter, mother and sister over her husband’s grave – her husband who was killed by her daughter after trying to rape her. The moment is filled with all the suffering that this family has undergone, but Penélope Cruz and her daughter still find a moment to note that this spot by the river is beautiful, and that he must be happy that this is his final resting place. In a similar way, Los abrazos rotos ends summing up all of the suffering of the movie, while still communicating resilience, hope and satisfaction with the outcomes of one’s labor. Dark, but even then you can find a way to smile.