The latest Pedro Almodóvar film is very much what we expect, but it’s also what we don’t expect. One of the many things I love about Almodóvar is that he has normalized some of the most marginalized and oppressed people in our society in his films (i.e. Transgender Latinas, mentally ill communities, and queer communities). I also love that he creates relationships with all the people in his cast and allows them to demonstrate their acting range as he cast them in other projects in completely different roles. I will let you know that Almodóvar is one of my favorite screenwriters and directors (Takashi Miike and Karyn Kusama are also on that list).
As a result, Almodóvar’s “usual suspects” are cast in Los Abrazos Rotos: Penélope Cruz (Volver) as Lena, a sex worker turned secretary who seeks to become an actor, Lluís Homar (La Mala Educación/Bad Education) as Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine a screenwriter and director, Blanca Portillo (Volver) as Judit García the agent of screenwriter Mateo/Harry; José Luis Gómez (Goya’s Ghosts) as Ernesto Martel a wealthy Spanish man who produces Mateo’s latest film, Rubén Ochendiano (Che Part 2) as Ray X, Ernesto’s gay son whom he ignores, and Tomar Novas (Goya’s Ghosts) as Diego, Judit’s son who helps Mateo/Harry.
The film takes place in two parts: 1994 and 2008. We meet Harry Caine, a well-known Spanish screenwriter and director who is blind in 2008. His agent Judit and her son Diego have been friends for decades and ensure Harry lives the independent life he desires. One day Harry has a visitor, Ray X, who seeks to write a screenplay with him about a son who was ignored by his wealthy father because he was gay and upon his father’s death the son can finally find the healing he seeks. Ray X pitches his story to Harry, but Harry declines. Harry is suspicious that Ray X is the son of recently deceased Ernesto Martel. As Diego inquires about the resistance to work with Ray X, Harry reveals how he knew Ernesto Martel.
We are taken back to 1994 when Harry went by his birth name of Mateo Blanco. We are introduced to Ernesto Martel who is working in his office and his secretary is Lena. Her father is dying of cancer, and Lena’s family needs help. She asks her wealthy employer Ernesto for assistance and he agrees. Ernesto covers her father’s medical bills by sending him to a private doctor and facility for treatment. Upon this assistance, Lena partners with Ernesto. It is through Lena that Ernesto is reunited with his son Ernesto Jr. (Ray X) who has told his father he is gay which increased the distance between them. After two years together, Lena decides to pursue her original goal of becoming an actor. She takes Ernesto Jr., an aspiring filmmaker, with her to an audition for Mateo’s current film. Mateo is immediately struck by Lena and after two auditions hires her for the lead.
Ernesto Sr. is not encouraging or supportive of Lena’s decision to “work” outside the home. He is obsessed with Lena and seeks to keep her followed/watched at all time. In order to do this he produces Mateo’s film, and asks his son to film production of the movie for a documentary and show him the footage each day. Ernesto Sr. discovers that Mateo and Lena begin a love affair and he is not happy. Ernesto Sr. does not allow Lena to leave him and becomes abusive and violent towards her.
Throughout the film we discover how the intimacy between Lena and Mateo lead to their current status: i.e. Mateo taking his pseudonym Harry and losing his sight. It is in this space that Almodóvar gives us some of the most stunning cinematography of his native Spain: black sand beaches, Spanish architecture, and massive forms of art that are sprinkled all over the country. We witness Judit’s relationship with Mateo and how it morphs after his relationship with Lena, and how Judit’s son, Diego, sees the ocean for the first time. I loved that story line, seeing the ocean for the first time, because as someone who was not raised near water, I remember what it was like to come into contact with water for the first time.
I truly appreciated Almodóvar’s way of normalizing sexuality among people with disabilities. The first scene of the film is of Harry flirting with and having sex with a young woman. Almodóvar also demonstrates how people with disabilities can live an independent life as Harry lives alone, travels alone, and uses technology to continue his field of work as a writer. For many people, seeing a computer that speaks to a blind person (in Spanish) may be a very new visual, as this is a daily practice for some blind people that I have not ever witnessed being included in media.
Prior to seeing this film I chose to visit the film website. I read a few of the reviews of the film, which honestly rarely give me what I really want to know about a film. I saw that some critics call this “film noir,” which I found interesting. You see, I’d call this film lacking female leads that are not pitiful. I’m not speaking of the performances, as I believe Cruz is amazing in Spanish cinema (and not in that wannabe Spanish cinema way a la Woody Allen nonsense). Instead, all of the female characters are created in a very weak way as many of them get beaten, abused (emotionally, physically, psychologically), are purchased, scared, must get saved by male characters, or in some way represent stereotypical characteristics we see all too often. Compare these female characters to the all-female cast in Volver and it’s a totally different set of characteristics.
I find it interesting film critics call this “film noir,” is that the nice way of saying international films create similar images of women that we have here in the US? Or maybe that’s the new way to eroticize non-US cinema? Because nobody is calling Seven Pounds, Obsessed, or Sin Nombre “film noir” and the female leads are just as stereotypical, if not more.
Along the lines of the “usual suspects” and stunning cinematography, Almodóvar also keeps with the imagery we are familiar with: bright colors, costumes that make me wish I knew how to sew better, interesting artwork from all over the world, hilarious lines delivered by each character, a strong conclusion to end the film, and an amazing soundtrack. This film, with its obvious flaws that surprised and saddened me, was worth every bit of the money I dished out for my Junior Mints. If it’s not in your area yet, it’s coming soon.
VL Verdict: 9 out of 10