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Pedro Almodóvar, Penélope Cruz Find Passion in ‘Broken Embraces’

Mateo Blanco, the great Spanish director, is blind. Or is he? We first meet him as he’s luring a beautiful woman into his home to read him the newspaper. What does she look like, he wonders. She tells him, down to the most intimate details. He asks permission to touch her, to feel with his hands what his eyes can’t see. They make love.

It seems like a setup, a cheap trick, but no. Mateo, who has adopted a blandly American pseudonym, Harry Caine, and has all but retired to a life removed from the spotlight, is in fact blind. How Mateo (Lluís Homar) lost his sight and the love of his life (played by the incomparable Penélope Cruz), is the mystery at the heart of Broken Embraces, the fascinating new drama from Pedro Almodóvar.

The director’s latest begins as film noir, tracing the roots of Mateo’s torrid romance with Lena, the actress who starred, 14 years earlier, in his final film – a comedy, Girls and Suitcases, that recalls Almodóvar’s own 1988 sex farce, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Mateo and Lena seem destined for each other from the get-go, but, as is so often the case in Almodóvar’s stories, their passion is not without dire consequences.

Lena is a woman kept, to her growing dismay, by Ernesto (José Luis Gómez), the billionaire financier who treats her as his most prized possession. Ernesto elects to produce Mateo’s movie, hoping to keep Lena on a short leash, but his ploy fails. She gravitates toward Mateo, dangerously underestimating Ernesto’s capacity for reprisal.

Much more I will not say, except to note that Almodóvar’s precarious love triangle proves more complicated than first imagined. The great tragedy of Mateo’s life unfolds with an air of somber inevitability, but those responsible for it – besides Ernesto, who crushes him by sabotaging Girls and Suitcases – might surprise you.

The beauty of Broken Embraces is the joy Almodóvar brings to his storytelling. There is no mistaking Mateo’s pain – it defines him, to the extent that he has spent years distancing himself from his memories, as if denying their existence. But he is neither bitter nor broken. By revisiting his past, he is reborn. When we leave him, piecing Girls and Suitcases back together in repudiation of Ernesto’s cruelty, he is a changed man once more – fiercely determined and finally at peace.

Is Almodóvar suggesting art as an antidote to loss? Not exactly. But as an expression of emotion, however deeply buried, he clearly sees it as cathartic. In that sense, Broken Embraces is as personal and rewarding a contribution to his remarkable body of work as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002).

As for Cruz, who earned an Oscar nomination for her fiery performance in Almodóvar’s Volver (2006) and took home the statuette for her supporting role in last year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she commands the screen with a presence both authoritative and graceful. Lena may be more vulnerable than some of her most memorable characters – she is battered, emotionally and physically – but thanks to Cruz, who projects strength effortlessly, there is no doubting her resilience and fortitude.