I can’t shake one image from Pedro Almodóvar’s heart-wrenching thriller Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos): A filmmaker, now blind, holds up his hands against a blown-up video still that captures the last moment he and his lover had together before she died, a kiss; it’s terribly pixilated, almost total abstraction, just coloured dots filling entirely the movie’s widescreen; the filmmaker’s outstretched hands seen clearly in the foreground. Almodóvar invests that action of reaching out toward a degraded record of a fleeting moment with such terrible, infinite longing that the crude, ugly digital image takes on the limitless beauty and wonder of a black night sky bristling with stars.
It’s a striking symbol of the artistic drive.
For all its plot twists, flashbacks and long-held secrets — staples of mystery and thriller genres — Broken Embraces is perhaps Almodóvar’s most painful, joyful examination of his career as a filmmaker — I don’t know if you can call it autobiographical — compassionate as it is scathing. From the lisping, pimply faced documentarian who everyone thinks is a pain in the ass to the lustful master bedding leading ladies as he himself gets into bed with anyone who will fund his films, Almodóvar is tireless in unearthing the dark side of his chosen profession, even likening filmmakers to vampires. And yet….
The complicated plot kicks off with the mystery of why a successful film director Mateo Blanco lost his sight and why he now pretends to be someone else, a screenwriter named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar). “Living one life wasn’t enough,” Caine announces at the start. And what roles did rich and powerful businessman Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), his beautiful but desperate secretary Lena (Penélope Cruz), the businessman’s creepy gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) and the filmmaker’s dutiful assistant (Blanca Portillo) have to play?
No one is innocent; everyone is guilty. Well, there is one innocent, but that would be giving away too much.
There is so much passion and intelligence in the film’s thematic exploration of mortality, memory, fathers and sons, women as mothers and lovers, the artist as predator and creator and, of course, the art of filmmaking itself, turning on that ineffable something — the subtlest of expressions, a trick of the light — that only an artist can spot.
Coming in at 128 minutes, Broken Embraces is never short of fascinating and the deliciously camp dénouement featuring TV star Carmen Machi will send you out into the world hungry for art and love.