Broken Embraces is a strange little suspense film. It contains only a few strategic betrayals and outright deceptions, but a great many unspoken secrets and lies of omission. Maybe it’s a little too mature for the good old double-cross, but it isn’t above including a few revelations and theatrical set pieces. The plot concerns a blind man and his alter ego, a woman and her screen personas, and their patron (among others of uncertain allegiance and history). The structure is borrowed from classic noirs and melodramas, fleshing out the characters’ pasts to understand their present and salvage their future.
Director Pedro Almodóvar handles the lurid material in his pathologically playful way. He has a particular talent for rendering the dramatic as matter-of-fact and the ordinary as portentous and whimsical by turns. This knack has made him a leading light in his native land and finds him verging on one-name status (think Hitchcock, Fellini) in North America. It is also a skill he must exploit carefully. In this world of psychosexual revelry and quaint modernity, every situation is transient, every moment and emotion fleeting — which means the gravity of the darker sequences can lack depth and purity.
A few well-played cards help compensate for this slight imbalance in tone. Embraces is served well by a fast-paced first half, which answers only the questions that raise others. Actions which may initially seem half-thought or shallow are often informed more profoundly by later developments.
Uniformly strong performances also help to elevate the film from a well-executed B-movie to a triumph. Penelope Cruz is virtuosic. Rather than coasting on her considerable charm and beauty, she crafts a performance of precision and intensity. Ultimately, the heart of the film belongs to its bruised ersatz family, writer Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), agent Judit (Blanca Portillo) and protégé Diego (Tamar Novas). The movie as a whole is pleasantly removed from the limp, spent mystery tropes of big-studio America, and too light on its feet to fall into the sometimes turgid heavy-handedness of lesser European efforts. Like all of Almodóvar’s efforts, it is ineffably its own. (Rated R)