Friday, August 27, 2010

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos) -- jealousy and identity

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 2009. (R)

Penelope Cruz has worked with Pedro Almodóvar five times in 12 years. It's easy to see why. He brings out the best in her. She was nominated for an Oscar under his direction in Volver.  Here, she is luminary but the story fails to match her quality.

Unlike most Almodóvar films, this is not female-centric. Two male stars together with Cruz form a love triangle that carries half the movie. When Cruz is in front of the camera she is beautiful and stunning to watch; and the film is, too. But when she is out of the picture and the story, the plot wanes.

Like many of his other films, though, Almodóvar mixes melodrama with mystery. This sexually charged movie opens with a close-up of a brown eye, in which we see reflections. The eye belongs to a woman who is sitting opposite Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), a blind screenwriter. Not seeing, he can "see" a film in his mind's eye and create the script. Also, though his visual sense is gone, he has not lost his physical senses of touch and taste. And he makes this evident when he beds this woman, a stranger he met just minutes ago. Sex, for Harry, becomes an expression of himself.

Harry relies on his agent Judit (Blanco Portillo) and her son Diego (Tamar Novas) to assist him with his work and his life. They are his eyes; they are even his muse for ideas. But Harry is carrying a secret. When a wealthy financier, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luiz Gomez) dies, it triggers memories from the 90s. Then, a stranger, a documentary maker, shows up at Harry's door trying to convince him to co-write a screenplay. These two events force Harry to confront a past he has been avoiding.

Almodóvar splits the film into the current day, where Harry recounts a story of his past to Diego, and that past itself. In that past life, Harry Caine was a movie dierector named Mateo Blanco. Working on his newest film, Blanco comes into contact with Lena (Cruz), an aspiring actress who shows up for the casting call. She is a knockout and wows him, winning his heart immediately. But she is Martel's young mistress. When Blanco needs funds, Martel becomes his financier and producer with Lena as the leading lady. But Martel insists that his gay son Ray (Ruben Ochandiano) make a "making of" documentary. He does this, though, to spy on his mistress.

Broken Embraces explores father-son relationships, but jealousy is the key theme that drives the plot. Jealousy is a sin (2 Cor. 12:20), a crippling emotion that eats away the joy and love inside a person like the cancer that killed Lena's father. It rarely leads to anything positive, and it does not in this movie.

Home decor plays a part. Martel's spacious home is decorated with giant paintings of guns and knives. This man, outwardly generous and kind, carries a sack of anger internally and is quietly violent. Harry's home and Judit's apartment are adorned with crosses, but neither are religious. These decorations provide masks and insights into the identities of their owners, one accusing, one denying.

Almodóvar likes to use the trope of a film-within-a-film. He did it in Talk to Her, and he does it here. What is surprising, though, is that his internal movie, "Girls and Suitcases, Blanco's lastest film, is modeled on his own earlier breakthrough movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The parallels come down even to the drug-spiked gazpacho. Moreover, there are other movie and movie star references. Cruz is stunning in a platinum wig, looking amazingly like Marilyn Monroe. Then a little later, she is the spitting image of Audrey Hepburn, sitting demurely sipping tea. Truly, Cruz' eye-candy beauty makes this film.

But Blanco and Lena cannot keep their love a secret. As Cruz acts as Almodóvar's muse, Lena does likewise for Blanco. Martel's act of jealousy hits to the heart of Blanco's identity -- as a director. He edits the film while the two are away and creates a monster. The film is a bust. In that act he metaphorically kills Blanco. Then when Blanco loses his eyesight in an accident, his identity is gone. Destroyed. Without his sight he cannot direct, he cannot live. And he puts to death Mateo Blanco, and takes on the persona of Harry Caine.

Blanco's identity is tied tightly to his work. Apart from his work he cannot live. This is common. Yet it is a fallacy. Our identity does not come from our work. As Mateo discovered, his work could be removed in an instant. Neither does our identity derive from success. Mateo learned this, too, when his "Girls and Suitcases" was a bomb. Success does not define us, though it is nice to have. Identity comes from within, from who we are. The externals may change. Even our senses may change. But the inner core remains, providing our identity.

And our inner core is driven by our nature and our relationships. If we know God, if we are related to him, we are truly children of his (Jn. 1:12). We can find our identity in him (1 Jn. 3:2). Then we are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:20), followers of Jesus. We can weather the storms of life, even loss of limb or organ, life itself, but remain constant in who we are.

In the climax, there is catharsis for Harry, who rediscovers life. Though his sight is still gone, his inner being once more matches his external mask. Identity is constant.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs
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