These days, when a director strings a few good movies together, people say they are on a roll. But how many filmmakers can honestly had an entire career that was one big roll—a career in which he’s never made a bad film? Even the likes of Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese have erred at times. Buddy, Buddy, Jamaica Inn or Bringing Out the Dead, anybody?
But consider the career of Pedro Almodovar, the great Spanish director. The guy has been prolific, making movies for 20 years, and nary one has been a bomb. Sure, there have been some disappointments, but most of his films have been right on-target, all showcasing —to borrow the phrase used for the great Ernst Lubitsch—“The Almodovar Touch.”
And what exactly is “The Almodovar Touch”?
Well, in most cases, Almodovar’s films have complicated plots, bold colors, and handsome—and sometimes wildly over-exaggerated—costume and production design. Often, they salute film noirs or glossy melodramas of Hollywood’s past. In many of his films, the characters are involved with the entertainment business, whether they are actors, TV reporters, or even bullfighters. Playing essential parts in the films are love, sex, romance, family, (anti-) religion, murder and the characters’ desire to find happiness in a topsy-turvy world.
In other words, Almodovar’s films have a lot on their plate. But the dexterous writer and director is not anything if not ambitious. He’s at home juggling all of the aforementioned elements whether the film is a stark drama, a comedy or a mix of the two.
In recent years, Almodovar has clung closely to his muse, actress, Penelope Cruz, making four films with the gorgeous lady from Spain. Their most recent offering, just out on DVD and Blu-ray, is Broken Embraces, a fascinating mash-up of classic ‘40s and ‘50s style film noir and the overheated melodrama of helmer Douglas Sirk, an Almodovar favorite.
Told with flashbacks and in contemporary sequences, Broken Embraces centers on a blind writer (Lluis Hornar), who is prompted by the death of a businessman (Jose Luis Gomez) to recall a series of incidents that occurred years ago. It seems that the sightless scribe once lived under a different name, and was a top film director. Back then, he was readying a film project starring the businessman’s former prostitute lover (Cruz, resembling Audrey Hepburn at times), with whom he also had a heated affair. During their intimate time together, the writer learned about the businessman’s violent ways. Adding to this already combustible mix is the wealthy man’s troublesome gay son and an assistant with whom the writer/director had an affair with in the past.
This all turns out to be a recipe of eccentric, lust-driven and/or revenge-minded characters who manipulate and deceive, much to Almodovar’s—and the audience’s—delight.
While the film was Almodovar’s most expensive effort yet, budgeted at $18 million, it didn’t catch on in the States like other Cruz-Almodovar collaborations. Still, it is a major work from one of the few international filmmakers whose name above the title guarantees attention by filmgoers around the world.
Of course, the Academy Award-winning Cruz’s appearances in Pedro’s films help bolster interest in the director’s work. She made her debut in a supporting part in Almodovar’s 1997 film Live Flesh, which starred her current life partner Javier Bardem.
But it was two years later with All About My Mother that Cruz and Almodovar really cemented their cinematic relationship as well as their mentor/muse alliance.
In this compassionate paean to motherhood and women’s relationships, the real star of the film is Cecelia Roth, playing a nurse who travels from Madrid to Barcelona to find the real father of her recently deceased son. The real popi turns out to be a down-and-out transvestite, and during Roth’s travels she encounters a cross-dressing prostitute, a pregnant, HIV-positive nun (played by Cruz), a stage actress and her heroin-addicted lover. To all, Roth’s character, only 40ish, acts as a matriarch. Almodovar’s goals are made clear in the film’s dedication: “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider…To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.”
While Cruz’s star rose in Hollywood with featured roles in such high profile films as Blow, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Vanilla Sky (opposite then-boyfriend Tom Cruise), she remained faithful to cinema from her homeland, appearing in such Spanish productions as Don’t Move and Woman on Top. For Almodovar, she took a key role in 2006’s Volver, another tribute to the tenacity of women, this time mixing comedy and tragedy.
Here, Cruz plays Raimunda, a woman well-bonded to her sister, daughter and late mother, who died three years earlier alongside Raimunda’s father in a fire. A murder leaves Raimunda with a dead body to take care of, and the appearance of her late mother’s ghost (played by Almodvar stalwart Carmen Maura) makes matters even more complex–especially with Raimunda’s sister trying to conceal their mom’s apparition from her. There’s even a connection to an earlier Almodovar film, 1995’s The Flower of My Secret.
With this film, you can sense the attraction of Almodovar’s camera to Cruz. Low-cut blouses showcasing her breasts are often prominent, and she’s even given an unusual musical number. For both the director and star’s efforts, Cruz got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Over the years, Almodovar has gone from the director of wild—and often hysterical—social/sexual comedies to mature films that can successfully mix different genres, manage to be funny, powerful and shocking at the same time, and address the wars between and within the sexes. Cruz has gone from being a gorgeous, vivacious supporting player in his films to a multi-faceted lead actress ready, willing and able to carry one of Pedro’s intricately plotted human adventures.
We look forward to more of Pedro and Penelope in the future. And to that we say ole!