Yesterday, for a surprise birthday treat, Alex and I took my dad to see Los Abrazos Rotos by Pedro Almodóvar. Its cinematic beauty with bright images and surreal Lanzarote landscapes lingered in my mind long after I left the theatre. Almodóvar is arguably the most important Spanish director of his generation. He has created a long line of masterpieces such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella and of course Volver. It is hard to ignore the recurrent strong female characters with all their complexities and layers in his work. Mothers are depicted as powerful with a hidden vulnerability, making you wonder about Almodóvar’s own upbringing. In Los Abrazos Rotos we find Almodóvar’s muse, the captivating Penelope Cruz. She is so easy to watch, you find yourself melting into the screen. The more her make-up fades and the more her hair tangles the more beautiful she becomes, portraying raw female power, ambition and desire.
The plot displays one of the worst fears for a director or any artist: becoming blind. The main character Mateo Blanco aka Harry Caine loses his sight after a tragic accident. He spends his time writing scenarios and sleeping with women who help him cross the road. The film is set in the 1990’s and present day and switches in between the two. The development of Cruz’s character: Magdalena occurs in the 90’s whereas present day shows Mateo’s world deprived of sight and deprived of Magdalena.
The love story between Mateo and Magadalena kicks off when Diego, recovers from a drug-induced coma. Diego is Judith’s son and Judith is Mateo’s personal assistant. When Diego wakes up Mateo offers to tell a story and Diego agrees to listen. In fact his character proves to be a great ear. As an actor Tamar Novas is very convincing, breathing life into his nerdy persona. I found myself wanting to learn more about him. He is a pull of gravity in the chaos that surrounds him, even though he doesn’t realize it himself. He has a laid back attitude even when he finds out who is biological father is.
Diego is bed-ridden after his coma which means Mateo can tell him a story and take care of him without being interrupted. This theme of being impaired so that someone can look after you is part of a larger theme in the film. The satisfactory feeling characters get when the ones they love need them, the feeling of dependency pops up in several occasions. After the accident Judith has to help Mateo walk down the hospital stairs. He is blind and will need to depend on her. Judith who rarely smiles throughout the film seems the happiest at this point. With Mateo on her arm she feels needed, he has no choice but to accept her help. Another occasion is when Penelope threatens to leave Ernesto Matel’s house and he pushes her down the stairs. She becomes crippled and he feels unnervingly satisfied that she is immobile at his hands.
Visually, Rodrigo Prieto did a fantastic job with the cinematography. The film is pure visual candy. Every scene is rich with colour. We are taken from the pop-art style set of the film Chicas Y Maletas to the surreal black sand landscapes of Lanzarote all in stark contrast to the bleak office setting we see Magdalena working in, in the beginning. It is pretty remarkable that such a melodramatic film can be drenched in bright colours and still remain tragic and dark.
Pedro Almodóvar has been quoted in many interviews saying Los Abrazos Rotos is his tribute to the world of cinema. There are endless amounts of film references throughout. How can you ignore the various wigs Magdalena has to put on? Transforming her from one screen-goddess to another, from Hepburn to Monroe. The power of the camera is another important element in the film. No one can escape the gaze of the camera. Ruben Ochandiano plays Ray X the annoying son of Ernesto Matel who is obsessed with Mateo. His father asks him to document the movie set of Mateo’s film but Ray X takes it further. He is present in almost every scene and when he isn’t the characters fear him. They can feel his presence. Although this highlights an intrusive aspect of filming, one of the most beautiful scenes is when Mateo strokes the blown up, pixilated footage of the last kiss between himself and Lena. Footage from Ray X’s camera.
The film is truly unforgettable regardless of what the critics might say. At the end we are left with Mateo’s final words which perhaps sum up Almodóvar’s love of film: “one must finish the film, even if he has to do it blindly”. This last line also suggests that no matter how painful we need to pick-up what has been left behind.