Memory has a habit of intruding. It knocks. It wishes to be recognised. Broken Embraces is an act of commemoration, a tribute for the dead

Pedro Almodóvar is a treasure of the screen, supremely sensitive to surfaces, characters, and the workings of the cinema itself. His devotion to the craft is unmistakable, demonstrated by constant hints, persistent allusions to past greats, and the mechanics of filmmaking.

In Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces ), we find him retracing his steps with films such as All About My Mother and Talk to Her. ‘Broken Embraces,' he declared in an interview with Sight and Sound (Sept 2009), ‘is a homage to and a declaration of love for cinema.' It is also a record of memories. The spectator is taken back and forth between the present and 1994. Mateo Blanco, a former film maker, is played by the able Lluís Homar. Having lost his sight and his love in a car accident, he resorts to writing screenplays under the name ‘Harry Caine.'  Indeed, he insists on that name, having previously crafted that nom de plume.

This shedding of identity can imply a host of things. The blind may see more clearly than the sighted, though in this case, one can choose not to see. The theme here is unmistakably political. Almodóvar, since Spain's passage of the 2007 ‘Law of Historical Memory', has busied himself with acquiring material on his country's response to its past. Spain, like Blanco, chose to gaze into a future, hiding, burying, ignoring the stifling despotism that had come before. Painful memories tucked away after the accident are drawn out by the death of Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), a financier whose mistress, Lena (Penélope Cruz), was given a role in his film Blanco directed, Girls and Suitcases. Martel's money did the talking on that score.

Martel's death triggers an exhumation of memory. Judit (Blanca Portillo), Blanco's right hand, and her son (Tamar Noves), are themselves the architects of such memories. Lena's corpse is resurrected in celluloid. Lena, while dead, lives in Blanco's picture, which he attempts to revive after the original was sabotaged. The same might be said of Spain's legislation on historical memory, which has made families find the graves of those who perished under Generalissimo Franco. Memory has a habit of intruding. It knocks. It wishes to be recognised. Broken Embraces, like previous efforts by Almodóvar, are portrayals of mourning for the dead. One immediately thinks of Volver, where the dead mother returns, proving every bit as effective as Banquo's ghost.

Cruz dazzles in Almodóvar's saturating light, almost overwhelmingly so. She seems to ooze through the screen. The camera lingers over her, itself seduced.  Blanco falls for Lena, and Martel begins feeding and harvesting his jealous rage.  Martel's consuming obsession compels him to keep watch on his mistress, something he facilitates through his gay son Ernesto, Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano).  Playing both enraged voyeur and enthusiastic spymaster, Martel engages the footage shot by his son each night, using the services of a lip reader. One is constantly drawn to the film within a film, with Girls and Suitcases itself resembling Almodóvar's own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Almodóvar has no intention of offering audiences an ‘analgesic' experience in this film. One is not moved to tears, being more disturbed than thrilled. Instead, one gets the awkwardness, the ‘beautiful chaos' as Cruz herself described the set in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. Much in terms of modern film neutralizes emotion, strips suggestiveness from plots and eliminates insinuation. Almodóvar, to his credit, keeps bucking the trend. For him Broken Embraces is a tribute to the awkwardness and sacred nature of memory, itself a response to his country's past. ‘It's now a humanitarian issue: of allowing families to unearth their dead.'

 

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

 

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