Broken Embraces - TIFF 2009 Day 1

Dir. Pedro Almodovar 

The 2009 Toronto Film Festival kicked off for me this evening, not with Creation, the official opening night film this year, but down Younge Street at the Elgin with Pedro Almodovar's latest collaboration with Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces. Actually, it's more of a collaboration with Lluis Homar (Bad Education) who plays the central role of Mateo Blanco -- or as he goes by nowadays, Harry Caine. Harry is Mateo's pen name and as we learn early on, the Harry side of his life took over once Mateo lost his eyesight.  The rest of the film is the unraveling the mysteries of Mateo's past and how he lost his eyesight. The film starts off with Almodovar expertly teasing out information and generally doing what he does best: introducing us to colorful, fully formed characters that the actors wear like a comfortable coat.  Almodovar's also become quite the master of creating involving, oddball mysteries for these characters and perhaps it's because he's gotten so good at it that this one feels less than inspired. But even less than inspired Pedro isn't without his charms. While there isn't much that's mysterious about this mystery, there's no shortage of amazing shots, wonderful acting and witty dialog. 

Broken Embraces splits its time between 1994 and 2008, as we flashback to the moments and events that are rising back to the surface due to the death of Ernesto Martel (a perfect Jose Luis Gomez), a powerful business man who we eventually find out was a producer on one of Mateo's films back in 1994. Through a turn of events Martel, who's along in years, is married to Penelope Cruz's Lena who aspires to be an actress, not a trophy wife. Lena and Mateo hit it off immediately and quite passionately. As Mateo tells the story, Lena would be the femme fatale of a pulpy Hollywood movie ("I knew she was trouble the first time I saw her"), but as embodied by Cruz, she's angelic and irresistible for all the right reasons.  As much as Ernesto Martel really is the bad guy of the picture, you can sympathize with the man every once in a while as he goes to extreme measure not to loose his grasp on Lena as she begins to gain her freedom with help from Mateo.

Unfortunately, once we find out how Mateo lost his eyesight and what become of Lena, the film quickly looses steam as the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film staggers to an end.  Up to that point, Almodovar is on his game and with the help of another effective score by Alberto Iglesias -- both working the same Hitchcockian vibes they did to good results in Bad Education. The two movies have a lot in common with each other, which drains a bit of life from Broken Embraces. Aside from having the same initials, both feature some movie within a movie madness. Really what keeps Broken Embraces down is the general predictability of its story and the feeling that there could have been greatness had some different paths been treaded.

I was particularly disappointed in how poorly the character of Ernesto Martel Jr. (or Ray X as he goes by nowadays) ended up being treated. Played by Ruben Ochandiano with maximum creepiness, his character (as well as too many others) ultimately becomes nothing but a plot convenience, a pawn to allow for certain things to happen.

For all its potholes there's a lot of surprising laughs and fistfuls of jackpot scenes and images that are still memorable even if the larger picture isn't. The movie within a movie this time is called Girls and Suitcases and it reminds you of that energy that Almodovar hooked you in and surprised you with back in the day and it's comforting to know he's still aware of those muscles and can flex them if he wants to. If he's gotten older and less interested in the wacky, that's perfectly fine, but just don't loose the energy and remember to end on a high note - not the one you telegraphed 20 minutes prior. It's a testament to his eye and his way with his amazing cast that Broken Embraces still manages to leave you smiling.