How much does Pedro Almodovar love Penelope Cruz?
To infinity and beyond in “Broken Embraces,” a tribute to the actress’s beauty and brio.
The film exists for Almodovar and his fans to worship at the shrine of Santa Cruz, cast here as a secretary who climbs the social ladder to become an industrialist’s mistress and, ultimately, a director’s muse.
A melodrama painted in the saffron-and-turmeric hues of a Bollywood musical, “Broken Embraces” is the Spanish filmmaker’s homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” that moody account of obsessional love and double lives.
It opens in the present day with a onetime director, Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), having assumed a new career (writer of thrillers) and a new name (Harry Caine, as in “hurricane”).
When Mateo/Harry learns of the death of the industrialist, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), the news triggers a flashback to the 1990s that introduces the character of Lena (Cruz), a hardworking secretary.
Ernesto buys his mistress an entree into showbiz, financing Mateo’s movie if the director lets Lena star. Lena is happy to screen-test for Mateo in a series of iconic wigs that make her resemble Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Jeanne Moreau.
Cruz, one of the few actresses who can be at once earthy and ethereal, is memorable here.
Likewise, Homar is quite touching as the director haunted by memories of his lady love and muse, and by what he might have done differently to keep love alive.
(The difference between movies and amor, Almodovar demonstrates, is that you can re-edit a movie but you cannot re-edit a love affair.)
Admittedly, this twisty, turny story with more curves than a scenic highway is not first-rate Almodovar. But the cinegenic beauty of Cruz and the film’s locations are indelible.