In Theaters: Broken Embraces

Movieline Score:

Sealed somewhere inside the careful thematic scaffolding and deliberate, searching narrative excavation of Pedro Almodovar's 25th film is a more creaturely pulse. Its presence is felt throughout Broken Embraces -- and note that title, like something pulled from Sirk's cold storage -- but only to the point of teasing suggestion, a faint thumping that can't quite pump life into the film's various and extenuated limbs, much less reach Almodovar's signature throb. Even beautifully executed, formally flawless constraint does not quite suit him, and the question is not why he locked his heart so deeply inside this mildly disappointing film -- it is as clear an emblem of his personal and cinematic passions as any film he has made -- but how he managed to, with not only all of his old faithfuls on hand but one character literally dressed up in his clothes.

Of late, chief among those faithful is Penelope Cruz, the star and spiritual center of his last film, Volver. Almodovar's interest in Cruz not just as aesthetic object but an old, slightly eccentric soul came to a splendid fruition in Volver; often with a pinnacle, however, there follows a diminishing return, a natural progression this film does nothing to avert. Here Cruz plays Lena (Magdalena), a woman of humble origins working as a call girl/secretary and at pains to support her parents through her father's grave illness. Having successfully guided the actress in the role of a complex, fully realized woman in Volver (a feat that had proved elusive certainly to Cruz's American directors before that time), Lena feels like something of a backslide for the duo. Here we have Cruz as glorious surface, again and nearly only; she exists in the film almost exclusively in memory or recorded image, and offers not much more than is required of her as a remote, recovered ideal. Lena takes up with her boss, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) because he is entranced by her beauty, and he takes care of her every need. Later, the director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) falls in love with her at first sight, obviously, because she's Penelope Cruz. Why she returns the favor (Homar reads bland and underslept in the film's central role) remains in considerable doubt.

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