Review: 'Broken Embraces'

(Three stars)

For some time, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has been on a winning streak, his handsome and comfortably budgeted films garnering critical praise and strong box-office from the art-house crowd. The streak continues with "Broken Embraces," though with less force.

Even in all its media-fueled mania, "Broken Embraces" cultivates the sense that its writer-director isn't working at the full creative capacity represented by his turn-of-the-century hat-trick: "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education."

Almodovar's narrative for "Broken Embraces" resembles that of his best films, like a mountain road with hairpin turns. The Madrid-set tale begins in 2008, then bounces back and forth from the early 1990s. The constant is the protagonist, Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), a blind screenwriter still troubled by the events that led to his blindness and, with it, the abandonment of his film-directing career. The blindness is, of course, also symbolic of the insecurity of "Harry" -- real name Mateo -- in dealing with his reality and his art.

In the present, Harry has created for himself a comfortably safe existence, enabled by his onetime producer/now assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo) and her teenage son Diego (Tamar Novas). A screenwriter calling himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochandiano) arrives out of the blue and won't take "no" for an answer to his request for Harry's help penning "a son's revenge on his father's memory."

"Ray X" turns out to be the son of the man responsible for Harry's current miseries, which we learn as Almodovar flashes back to 1992 and then 1994. Here, we watch as Mateo makes a film -- starring gorgeous discovery Lena (Penelope Cruz) -- that will turn out to be the figurative death of him. For "Harry Caine" has, consciously or not, named himself after the hurricane, the powerful wind of fate that blew his life off course and makes him empathetic to survivors.

Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and costume designer Sonia Grande aid and abet Almodovar's lush visual style, which -- along with the elements of mystery and torrid sex -- gooses "Broken Embraces" through its generous 128-minute running time. This isn't the first time Almodovar has explored cinema and its power to change lives, but for all its colorful visuals and narrative sophistication, the story feels more insular than ever.

One could not be blamed for asking of this new art-house piece, "What does any of this have to do with real life?" One could say the same of the exaggerated but artistically exciting noir thrillers and Douglas Sirk melodramas that inspire Almodovar, but at least most of those didn't compound their insularity by being about film directors.

At times "Broken Embraces" seems like expensive art therapy for its maker. As the director's surrogate Harry puts it: "Everything's already happened to me. All I have left is to enjoy life." "Broken Embraces" is enjoyable enough, but all the same, Almodovar would do well to emulate his own protagonist and move further out of his safety zone.

Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material. 2 hours, 8 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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