In a season of blue aliens and karate-kicking Sherlocks, Pedro AlmodA3var's “Broken Embraces” certainly is a change of pace.
It's full of stories — all revolving around its central one regarding Mateo (Lluis Homar), a middle-aged former director who gave up filmmaking and changed his name after an accident left him blind. The movie takes place in the present and during Mateo's heyday in the 1990s, before his accident, providing for more than a decade of back stories and digressions into the lives that intertwine with Mateo's, and even a made-up story or two (the director is now a screenwriter). You can hardly meet a character without hearing a yarn or watching them slip into a subplot. Mateo's assistant, Diego (Tamar Novas), falls ill at a club where he's DJing when he accidentally drinks someone else's drug-spiked drink. Mateo, cane in hand, is there at Diego's bedside when he wakes up at the hospital, a story to tell him at the ready.
All of these stories spill into the main narrative, how Mateo changed his name to Harry Caine after losing his sight, an episode that included a former lover, the statuesque Lena (AlmodA3var regular Penelope Cruz). The rest of the film slowly puts the pieces into place to reveal the circumstances of how it all happened. This is one of those movies, however, in which the revelation can't possibly live up to the hype. For all the stories floating around on the screen, most of the enjoyment develops out of how they were put there, in the filmmaking style, the appealing AlmodA3var regulars, the director's signature zest for bright color and playful humor, and the trove of references. It can easily be a bit much for even the most ardent AlmodA3var fan to maintain excitement. So much invention and imagination is at work the result begins to feel like an elaborate, precious puzzle. It has everything but a heartbeat.
Mateo's daily existence as Harry revolves around two trusted friends, Diego and his mother, Judit (Blanca Portillo), who enters the film like most of the other characters, bearing an aura of mystery. You just know when you meet her that there's going to be a revelation involved, and probably a flashback. Diego was just a little boy when Mateo became Harry Caine, but Judit was there from the beginning, most importantly when Mateo met Lena (Cruz), the mistress of a powerful and controlling businessman (Jose Luis Gomez) who allows Lena to star in Mateo's latest film as long as he can produce it.
The plot might sound a little confusing, and it's surprising, although you only notice afterward, with how continuously back-and-forth the film is that it's never very difficult to follow. And there are a lot of minor characters to deal with, including Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), a wealthy young man with an ax to grind, who wants to write a film with Mateo as a vendetta against Lena's sexual employer, bring all their stories together.
“Broken Embraces” has been noted by some as a neo-noir, with overt references to American film noir from the 1950s. There could be something lost in translation there, but I didn't see it. If anything the film resembles a contemporary daytime soap opera, which is not intended as an insult but rather a straight reading of its penchant for melodrama and frequent reliance on bizarre coincidence for the film's progression. Cruz does show up in a platinum blonde wig, but for all her talents, the actress is unable to pull off the beguiling tone the scene and the rest of the movie are going for.
Lena and Mateo fall into a passionate affair, upsetting her sugar daddy and setting the core of the plot in motion. We can understand why Mateo would succumb to her charms, but while Lena becomes an obsession to Mateo and at least one other man, she fails to seduce the audience. Much later, Mateo and his two friends re-edit one of the director's long-abandoned works, and at that point it seems like one inside joke too many for the movie's good. AlmodA3var is so distracted by the intricacies of creating Mateo and his sorrowful back story that he's unable to find its significance. (R) 128 min. HHIII