Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
With the arrival of Pedro Almodovar’s latest with Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers, I am reminded of past collaborations between the two. Here are my reviews of Volver (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009), originally published in The Herald. Of course, for these films and any other Almodovar connection you can think of, Scarecrow Video has you covered.
Ever since the international success of 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Pedro Almodovar has been at the top of his class among European filmmakers. He even copped an Oscar, for best screenplay, for his 2002 film Talk to Her.
The Spanish director has a new one, Volver, and it’s one of his best. Here he combines one of his most emotionally satisfying stories with an unabashedly old-fashioned movie-star vehicle.
That movie star is Penelope Cruz—yes, the Spanish beauty whose U.S. career seems to have succeeded more as a sometime girlfriend to Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey than as an actress in Hollywood movies. All of that is absolved with Volver. Almodovar has always been good at glorifying actresses, and Cruz blossoms under his guidance.
The interlocked story has Cruz as an indomitable woman named Raimunda whose life of laboring to support her teenage daughter (Yohana Cobo) and shiftless husband is about to change. For one thing, the hubby ends up on the floor of her kitchen, dead from a knife wound.
Almodovar, who’s a huge fan of heavy-breathing melodramas and soap operas, seems to be re-working the plot of the classic Joan Crawford movie, Mildred Pierce. But he quickly moves into his own territory, as Raimunda’s sister Sole (Lola Duenas) is startled to discover their dead mother (Carmen Maura) walking around. Are we watching a ghost story now? Meanwhile, Raimunda takes over an empty restaurant, whose owner has left town. She doesn’t own the place or anything, she just happens to have the keys. This move solves two problems: she can make a little money selling food, and she can store her husband’s body in the freezer.
This film has been described as something of a return to Almodovar’s earlier, funnier films, but I don’t agree. Volver has many amusing moments, but it is fundamentally thoughtful, warm, and even melancholy. The director’s customary feeling for women and the way they soldier on through the world is as keen as ever.
Helping him are actresses he’s worked with before, notably Carmen Maura, the star of his earliest movies, and Penelope Cruz, who seems wiser and more womanly here than she’s ever been. Maybe every actress who wants to get her career back on track should work with Pedro Almodovar.
With its opening scene, in which a blind writer seduces the hot young woman who has just helped him cross the street, Broken Embraces warns you to expect just about anything.
In a film by Pedro Almodovar, that’s the only course of action. The Spanish director, whose steady output has included Volver and Talk to Her, returns here with a typically stylish drama that folds neatly (maybe too neatly) into his previous work.
That blind writer is a former filmmaker now working (since the accident that blinded him) under the pseudonym Harry Caine; he’s played by Lluis Homar. Harry is haunted by the accident and its circumstances, which happened 14 years earlier. The arrival of an obnoxious young director, who calls himself Ray X, sends Harry into detailed flashbacks about the past. I mean it as a compliment when I say the actor who plays Ray X, Ruben Ochandiano, is perfectly horrid in the role.
Flashbacks, long ones, get us into Harry’s world as a successful film director, and his intense relationship with an actress, Lena (Penelope Cruz). They worked on a movie, Girls and Suitcases, the excerpts from which make it look more than a little like Pedro Almodovar’s breakthrough picture, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Lena has her tangled story, too. For a variety of heart-tugging reasons, she had become the paid companion of an extremely wealthy man (Jose Luis Gomez). Other characters flit around the story, notably Harry’s longtime assistant (Blanca Portillo). We can tell she’s been serving at his beck and call all these years, and probably nurses a combination of loyalty and hostility that would come with sacrificing her own personality to the great genius.
Almodovar is always good with those kinds of peripheral characters, the precisely-drawn, neurotic types. And his customary design sense is here too, his great eye for colors and patterns that stop just short of being crazy.
He’s given another luscious role to Penelope Cruz, who starred for him in Volver. She really seems like a movie queen from the 1960s, which is presumably how Almodovar wants her to come across.
For all that, Broken Embraces has an underwhelming quality that makes it seem like more of the same from this director. (I can never remember the plots of Almodovar’s films enough to tell one from another—and I like his movies.) The story in this case might have come from a glossy melodrama of the Fifties, but diced up in a new way. Maybe I’ll remember it when his next movie comes out, maybe not, but it certainly is absorbing for two hours.
February 4, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.