Broken Embraces (Los Brazos Rotos)

 

            Itís an old story, but here itís told so piecemeal that we almost donít recognize it:  rich executive Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) falls in love with his beautiful administrative assistant, Lena (Penelope Cruz).  In fact, heís obsessed with her.  She, being a woman of the world, understands that heíll do anything to have her, so now she needs to decide what, exactly, she wants.

            Her father is very ill, and his mother is desperate for the money to care for him properly.  Thatís reason enough to take up with the elderly gentleman, not really for love, but Lena figures sheís comfortable enough, and even resists his urging to divorce his wife to marry her.  She senses that this way, she maintains control. 

            Her intuition proves to be prescient.  A chance encounter leads to a golden opportunity:  to audition for a part in a film, something sheís always wanted to do.  Heís reluctant to allow it, fearing, justifiably, that would unnecessarily risk an alienation of her affection.  Itís worse than that.  She falls in love.  And now, being with her old benefactor is perfectly odious to her, even making her physically ill.  But she continues to act interested because heís made himself the producer of the film, and so possesses artistic control.  So now we have the proper tension created, because everyone wants something from someone else, nobodyís quite able to deliver what anybody else wants, and so everybodyís miserable.

            Yes, Director Pedro Almodovar is still completely enamored with the persona of Penelope Cruz.  Heís always willing to experiment with his films, and here, we have a complicated movie-within-a-movie that resides with a story told partly in the present and partly in retrospect, by characters whose motivations are not always what they appear to be. Despite the screenplayís intricacy, there are some slow moments.  Almodovar is perfectly content in low-key, domestic settings:  talking around the breakfast table, contented lovers entwined on the couch watching an old movie, announcing plot advances while dicing vegetables, and lovemaking under the sheets, with no audible endearments save a soft duet of grunting and moaning. 

            Yes, itís a risk, asking Penelope Cruz to pretend to act badly, the primary risk being that our suspension of disbelief is interrupted in the middle of all the self-conscious subterfuge.  Nevertheless, there are some moments that fascinate, and Almodovar has assembled a veteran, competent cast to deliver his continuing valentine to a beautiful starlet, now not so young, but itís a testament to her impact that we are still rooting for her, even when sheís left our sight.  Now thatís screen presence.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas