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Penelope and Pedro: Broken Embraces

With their fourth feature together, Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos), we submit that the talented Spanish icon Pedro Almodóvar and goddess Penélope Cruz have officially reached that exalted director/muse status.

Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar

Martin Scorsese
and Robert De Niro. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

The cinema would be a lesser place without the classic films sprung from its great director/actor teams. Currently, the celebrated Spaniards, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar and his actress/muse Penélope Cruz, are on the verge of that mythic list, italics intended. That's not just a pun on Almodóvar's international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), but also a winking acknowledgement of his latest feature Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos), opening this week in select cities.

In a film within that new film, the director reenacts crucial scenes from his own Women on the Verge. Here’s the fascinating revision: Cruz plays the Carmen Maura role from that classic Oscar-nominated comedy. I would hate to downplay Maura’s preeminence in the Almodóvar canon—they made eight wonderful career-establishing films together—but isn’t this a self-conscious passing of the torch from his original muse to today’s Oscar-winning superstar? That seems doubly likely when you remember that after eighteen years away from Pedro’s cameras, Maura returned to play Cruz’s ghostly mother in Volver (2006). 

The evolving partnership of Cruz and Almodóvar has been fascinating to watch. At the New York Film Festival last month, Cruz hinted that she had auditioned for Kika (1993): “I was almost a little girl when I met him. I was too young for it.”  Many years later, their lives are significantly intertwined. “I’ve changed. He’s changed.” When she’s working on a picture with him, she says, “I’m not just working. I’m going through a life changing adventure with someone who has been present for many important moments in my life.”

They’ve now made four pictures together.

Penelope Cruz in Live Flesh

Live Flesh (Carne trémula)

Cruz enters Almodóvar’s filmography screaming. Not from pleasure, though it might have been had she known the roles that awaited her. She enters screaming because her character, the prostitute Isabel, is in labor. Or maybe she’s screaming because she knows she’s not long for this film. She gets just ten minutes before the narrative jumps twenty-some years forward and her infant is now an orphan, an ex-con and a very bad boy. Trivia Note: Though Cruz was only twenty-three years old at the time, Live Flesh was already her fourth feature with future lover, Javier Bardem.

Penelope Cruz in All About My Mother

All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre)

This Oscar-winning masterpiece, arguably Almodóvar’s finest hour, follows a grieving mother (Cecilia Roth) on a journey to Barcelona to find her dead son’s transvestite father. On this journey of the soul, she encounters abundant lively characters, including Cruz’s weepy pregnant nun. Yes, the actress is pregnant in her first two movies with the famous director… pregnant with possibility.

Penelope Cruz in Volver


Their third collaboration, then, was the miracle birth. After several years of poorly received stabs at English-language stardom—and a much talked-about relationship with Tom Cruise—Penélope returned to Almodóvar’s colorful vision of Spain and took center stage. Volver means "return" in Spanish, and how apt! Her reunion with the silver-haired master won her new international respect to augment that burgeoning celebrity.

As Raimunda, Cruz is a haggard but voluptuous mother covering up her daughter’s murder of her husband while mourning her own mother’s (Carmen Maura) fiery demise. The performance won her a much-deserved Oscar nomination. Volver’s plot is a dizzying blend of melodrama, comedy and thriller, and Cruz’s masterful star turn keeps pace with it. She manages a beautiful fusion of comic beats, barricaded emotion, and slowly revealed back-story. If you’ve never seen it, now is the time. If you have, it’s even better the second time. While she was wonderfully funny and sexy in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Volver’s Raimunda was half the battle in winning that Oscar last February.

Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos roto

The duo's fourth collaboration is difficult to describe, given Almodóvar’s typically complex plotting. The story involves a blind screenwriter, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), working on a new project. A vaguely familiar, unexpected visitor sends the former director flashing back to his torrid affair years ago with Lena (Cruz), a kept woman who longed to escape her rich benefactor and become a film actress. Blanco, unsure of Lena’s talents but smitten by her beauty, cast her as the lead in Girls and Suitcases (fans will immediately recognize it as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). Their affair is discovered, and the resulting chaos all but destroyed the film.

Though Cruz isn’t the lead performer as she was in Volver, her ravishing beauty and supple performance (we sometimes see Lena quickly shifting registers to smooth the rough edges of her romances) are huge assets for the film. When questioned about Lena’s motives, the actress explains, “She has become a great actress in life, and a great manipulator. She has learned to do that to survive.”

In an extraordinary moment late in the film, Blanco asks that a piece of found footage, a document of his last memory of Lena, be slowed down in the projector. He wants it to last forever. The director raises his hands to the screen, caressing the projection of this woman that he can no longer see, and just maybe the films he can no longer direct. It’s a stunningly multi-layered image about images. It’s also a fitting proxy for Pedro Almodóvar’s love of Penélope Cruz, writ large on the screen.

Cruz’s recent wave of acclaim has drawn many comparisons to classic actresses, which is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. For Volver, she was compared to Anna Magnani. Now, with Broken Embraces, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn’s names are sometimes bandied about. “She can be both,” Almodóvar proclaims, before dismissing the comparisons as cosmetic. “Small references for working are good to have for hair and makeup. The rest is completely her own.”

The world’s most famous Spanish director is still a prolific vital film force, thirty-plus years into his career. The world’s most famous Spanish actress, currently at the peak of her powers, is highly in demand on two continents. They will surely drift away from each other from time to time, as they both continue to practice their craft, but just as surely they’ll reunite. Broken Embraces reveals a creative marriage that’s still absorbingly passionate and capable of surprise after four fine films. May this marriage last through at least four more.

Broken Embraces opens in selected cities on Friday, November 20. Find tickets now.



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