Warning: Contains spoilers!
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Broken Embraces, or Abraços Partidos, as it is called in Brazil, is not his best work. I watched the film on Sunday in Brasilia after the film opened in Brazil on Friday.
Starring Penelope Cruz as Lena, a young secretary at a large company who occasionally works as a high-class escort to make some extra money, the film shows her father dying from cancer of the stomach that has metastasized. Her boss at the company, played creepily well by Jose Luis Gomez, is in fact the rich industrialist Ernesto Martel who owns the whole company. He’s a lecherous old man, who jumps at the chance of helping Lena when she calls him up to ask for help in getting treatment for her ailing father. Before we know it, Lena is his lover living in luxury with him in his large mansion. But of course, ennui soon sets in and Lena goes looking for work as an actress. She visits the office of movie director Mateo Blanco played by Lluis Homar, and sparks fly. Blanco hires her for one of his films and they fast become lovers.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. All that I have just described occurs in flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, Blanco is blind and has been reduced to writing film scripts. He is taken care of by his agent Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas). A surprise visit by a certain Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to produce a film with Blanco, sets in motion the flashbacks that tell the twisted story of what really happened between the main characters.
Ray X is in fact the gay son of Ernesto Martel who wants revenge for what his father did to Blanco and Lena. Blanco turns him away and during a ten-day period when he is left in the care of Diego, tells the young man what happened so many years ago with him and Lena. It turns out that Martel agreed to finance the film that Lena was starring in as a way to keep her under his control. To find out if she is being faithful or not, Martel sends his son out with a video camera to make a documentary of the making of the film. The son trails Lena everywhere, on set and off, filming everything and handing in his daily shots to his father who watches them at night and employs a hilarious lip-reader (Lola Dueñas) to help decipher what is being said since his son’s shots mysteriously have no sound.
The secret affair unmasked, Lena decides to leave Martel but he pushes her down a long staircase and then drives her to a hospital for treatment. She recovers but decides to run away with Blanco to Famagusta. They stay there for a month, but Martel manages to track them down and sends his son after them. Tragically, Lena is killed when a SUV smashes into the car she’s in with Blanco. The director is blinded in the accident.
The problem with this film is that I could not manage to care about what was happening to the characters in the first hour of the film. Cruz is amazingly flat in this film, with a determined look on her face most of the time that just makes her look like a gold digger. Homar walks around acting like an oversexed man going through a mid-life crisis, while Portillo just seems to constantly frown throughout the movie. The only character with some semblance of sweetness and naturalness is Tamar Novas as Diego.
The other problem is with the script that allows Judit Garcia to tearfully admit at the end of the film that she helped Martel track down the two lovers and even helped him re-edit Blanco’s movie so that it would be a critical flop. Blanco hardly flinches at such revelations of betrayal, which was not very believable. All in all, it is sort of a relief when Lena is killed off near the end of the film, which does not say much about the quality of Cruz’s acting, the direction she got from long-time friend Almodovar, or the script that they worked with.