Like a well-crafted novel, Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" takes its time revealing its true intentions. It's an emotional time bomb, one packed with passion, color, romance and tragedy.
Set alternately in the present and the early 1990s, "Broken Embraces" ostensibly is about a blind screenwriter named Harry Caine (Lluis Homar). First seen enjoying a sexual fling with a young woman he's just met, Harry is obviously in demand as a writer. His agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) is pressuring him to finish an overdue script, so he can get to work on his next one.
But a newspaper headline about an industrialist's death - and a meeting with a would-be filmmaker who wants to commission Harry to write a screenplay - trigger an avalanche of memories, which Harry pours out to his assistant, Diego (Tamar Novas), who is Judit's son.
The flashbacks deal with Harry's former identity as filmmaker Mateo Blanco, who wrote under the Harry Caine pseudonym. Mateo's life is changed forever when a beautiful woman named Lena (Penelope Cruz) shows up to audition for his new film. Struck by her beauty, he casts her in the lead and launches an on-set affair.
But Lena comes with strings attached - and a history of her own. Once the secretary to rich CEO Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), she is now his live-in mistress. Bored with him, she leaps into the affair with Mateo, even as she works on her screen debut.
Martel finances Mateo's film, but is jealous enough to force Mateo to hire Martel's gay son from a previous marriage, Ernesto Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano), for the crew. Ernesto Jr. is given the job of shooting an on-set documentary - and each night, Martel scans his son's footage for clues about Lena and Mateo. He even employs a lip-reader to catch every syllable between the two. Before long, it becomes clear just how deeply they are involved.
Almodovar's movie love takes this film to various levels of revelation, whether he's filming these actors, watching them act in front of someone else's camera or showing film of them being watched by a third party. Someone is always watching - and someone is always at some layer of remove as a result.
None of the embraces can last, except perhaps the embrace of cinema. Ultimately love is too fragile, too frangible. Love doesn't last - but celluloid does. You rarely get to end a love affair the way you'd like - but at least you can finish the movie your own way, if you're lucky.
The emotions of this film sweep, or creep up on you. With bold colors and performances that are real and piercing, Almodovar keeps all of the balls in the air, creating Hitchcockian suspense at times, in scenes that call to mind "Notorious," among others.
Cruz gives a full-bodied performance that is almost as fierce as her work in "Volver," as a woman leading a dual - sometimes triple - life. Her character has a certain armor to keep feelings at bay - yet her emotional nakedness is inevitable and moving.
Homar is a newcomer to the Almodovar lineup. He moves easily between past and present, convincing as powerful film director and as a canny blind man who has turned his disability into a different kind of power.
"Broken Embraces" is as emotionally rich as any of Pedor Almodovar's films: surprising, suspenseful, enveloping. In the past decade, he has blossomed into a true master and this film only enhances his legacy.
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