Special Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
Penelope Cruz teams up with director Pedro Almodovar for the fourth time for "Broken Embraces."
3 out of 4 stars
Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart. The Coen Brothers and Steve Buscemi. The Coens and George Clooney. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Scorsese. And now Leonardo DiCaprio.
It's rare, but when a director develops a reoccurring relationship with a performer, it not only makes for better films, it also saves everyone involved a whole bunch of time. Over the years, they learn each others' talents, work habits and foibles. They also forge a kind of artistic shorthand only they can understand.
Lesser known than all of the above pairings are director Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz. "Broken Embraces" is their fourth movie together and while very good and brilliant in spots, it is in some ways the weakest of the lot (which says a lot about their other films). Neither director nor star is losing anything with age; he's just trying (perhaps even unconsciously) to be less of himself and more like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.
The most obvious example of Almodovar's fawning/tribute/pilfering is with the pseudonym of his lead character played by Lluis Homar. A decade or so ago when he had his sight, he was a film director named Mateo Blanco. Now he's a blind screenwriter named Harry Caine. Harry and Caine (with the spelling changed) are the names of Welles' characters in "The Third Man" and "Citizen Kane."
The "Kane" connection continues with the introduction of Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), a business tycoon and film producer clearly modeled after Welles' nemesis William Randolph Hearst. Similarly to Hearst with Welles, Martel sabotages what turns out to be Blanco's last movie. Both men were or are in love with Lena (Cruz), Martel's secretary who auditioned for a part in Blanco's doomed film. That's about all you need to know about that subplot.
The second and even more sinister story line is pure "Vertigo"/"Rear Window" era Hitchcock. Through his assistant Judit (Blanca Portillo), Caine is approached by a guy calling himself Ray-X (Ruben Ochandiano), another director who wants Caine to write a screenplay about the turbulent relationship between a father and a son. With his plate already full, Caine turns Ray down -- until Ray starts feeding him some of his stories' juicier bullet-points.
Although there are essentially just five principal characters in the movie, it feels more like a dozen. The dizzying non-linear narrative covering close to 15 years, the rapid Spanish dialogue, the English subtitles, multiple identities and purposefully deceptive, sleight-of-hand cinematography make watching the film something of a chore. It's a fun chore but a chore nonetheless and leaves the viewer spent and with the feeling they'd have watch it a few more times in order to absorb it sufficiently.
In addition to Hitchcock and Welles, let's also toss Stanley Kubrick into the mix. Very few people -- professional critics included -- grasp everything going in a Kubrick movie the first time they watch it. Is that the sign of a brilliant storyteller, an elitist filmmaker or just someone who wants his audience to pay for the same thing twice? In this case, it's all of the above.
Presented in Spanish with English subtitles. (Sony Pictures Classics)