Thursday, January 21, 2010

Los abrazos rotos

There is something magical about the work of Pedro Almodovar. He is the grand, flamboyant master of Spanish cinema. His films create colorful, magical worlds and celebrate the ridiculous chaos of life. He flirts with the surreal and immerses himself in the operatic. He brings artistry and nuance back to melodrama, and adds his own off-beat flair. His list of masterpieces seemingly grows longer with each subsequent film: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver, and many's like giving a roll call of our generation's most wonderful films. Almodovar is, undeniably, a genius.

The filmmaker's latest opus is Broken Embraces, an arch meditation on the maddening, tragic, painstaking struggle of being an artist. Almodovar knows this struggle, which is why the film is, in a way, an autobiographical journey of this particular artist's soul. And yet the story is wildly, vividly fictional, dealing with the high-intrigue blending of love, business, and filmmaking between a popular director, his beguiling muse, her controlling husband, and other pawns in a game of secret paranoia, conflicting emotions, and movies. If it seems like piling on, it absolutely is, and yet Almodovar's unmistakable touch makes it all work seamlessly, crafting another magical journey through his artistic mind.

Almodovar himself has a muse, Penelope Cruz, ravishing star of many of Almodovar's films, who here plays Lena, the ravishing star of Mateo Blanco's (Lluis Homar) anticipated film, Women and Suitcases. Except now Mateo Blanco goes by the name "Harry Caine." Why? Well, that is what the journey of this rollercoaster narrative sets out to unveil. Traversing multiple timelines, Broken Embraces chronicles the doomed production of Mateo's/Harry's film, his tragic relationship with the mystifying Lena, who starts the film moonlighting as a call girl and eventually marries businessman Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Martel finances the film but becomes suspicious -- rightly so -- of Lena's relationship with Mateo.

As usual, Almodovar goes to great lengths not to demonize anyone. Martel is surely a rich bastard, but he also has a heart, and it pains for Lena's affection, or at least reverence. Almodovar regular Blanca Portillo plays Judit, Mateo's creative partner, whose secret love for Mateo leads her down a road that might in another film lead to villainy, but in Almodovar's world we understand the beautifully conflicting emotions of all these characters. Their complicated journeys are the power of Broken Embraces -- indeed, they are the power of Almodovar's work as a whole.

Almodovar has the ability to frame extraordinary images that accutely cut to the heart of his subtext, and there is no shortage of them in Broken Embraces. Moments like when a blind Harry reaches out to touch an image of his final visual memory of Lena, or when Lena speaks over the muted image of a heartbreaking monologue. The psychic link between images and reality, the way one feeds into the other, the way they intermingle, how the image can become reality even as it remains an unmistakable mirage, is one of the film's most intriguing themes.

Film is a mirage, yet it is a vibrant, passionate expression of life that can explode off the screen and make us feel in ways even "real life" sometimes cannot. Love, Almodovar posits, is the same sort of mirage. Perhaps it is fleeting, perhaps it will be challenged, and perhaps it will be ripped from us, forcing us into a creative coma in which we change our name and revert into an alternate lifestyle (!), but it allows us to dance, however briefly, to the pulse of life.

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