Most veteran cineastes look forward to catching any film by the celebrated Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar — let alone an Almodóvar film with his popular periodic muse Penélope Cruz (“All About My Mother,” “Volver”). “Broken Embraces” seems almost tame and mainstream compared to Almodóvar’s earlier wildly provocative work such as “High Heels” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Perhaps that’s a sign of Almodóvar’s growing maturity as a filmmaker. Now well-established after winning an Oscar (“All About My Mother”) and many other prizes, he doesn’t need to shock anyone to get their attention.
That’s not to say that “Broken Embraces” lacks Almodóvar’s trademark melodrama, which is packaged here in a story told via flashbacks in a calm, almost matter-of-fact manner. This technique tantalizingly hints at the dramatic tension brewing below the surface.
Fourteen years ago, established movie director Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar) suffered an auto accident that left him blind. Without the sense of sight, he chooses to leave his life behind by submerging into a new identity under the pen name he uses for screenwriting, Harry Caine. In Madrid, Harry manages to carry on his writing career with the help of his devoted longtime colleague (Blanca Portillo) and her son (Tamar Novas). But when Harry reads the newspaper, he learns that financier Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died, bringing back a memory from the past. Martel had produced Mateo’s last film as a director. During its shoot, he fell in love with the leading lady and Martel’s mistress, Lena (Cruz), and 14 years later, Harry rehashes his tale of crazy love that ended in tragedy.
The film’s noirish elements succeed whereas Almodóvar’s neo-noir “A Bad Education” didn’t quite fit together. Though it’s not a masterpiece, “Broken Embraces” doesn’t fail to deliver with solid acting by a cast of Almodóvar regulars benefiting from an equally solid script.
Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos) (Spanish with subtitles; 128 min.; scope) AMC Shirlington Landmark’s Bethesda Row Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Dec. 25 4 out of 5 stars
Battle of the Bulge
At the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, an audience favorite was the Israeli hit “A Matter of Size,” a hybrid comedy-romance-sports drama from directors Sharon Maymon (also co-writer) and Erez Tadmor. The unlikely story works as a universal tale of people trying to make their dreams come true and find a place where they’re accepted by society. Its selection as the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival’s opening night film serves as its mid-Atlantic premiere.
Well into adulthood, timid giant Herzl (Itzik Cohen) still lives with his mother in Israel. He’s fired as a salad bar chef after management decides his 340-pound weight clashes with the desired healthy vision that customers should see. So he lands a gig as a dishwasher in a sushi eatery owned by Kitano (Togo Igawa), a former sumo wrestling coach from Japan. Sick and tired of the constant struggles trying to lose weight via diets and exercise, Herzl convinces his boss to train him and fellow members of his weight loss support group to compete in an upcoming sumo tournament in Japan. Sumo is one place where men of his size are revered for being themselves. The confidence that Herzl gains from sumo may even help him find love.
In Israel, being fat is just as socially unacceptable as in the United States — probably even more so because Israel is a much more physically active society with mandatory military service for all citizens. Unlike the gentle positive goading of an American support group, the Israeli weight loss support group is all about tough love. In fact, Herzl is kicked out after he gains weight. The witty, acerbic dialogue that the characters throw at each other provides plenty of laughs. Also humorous are physical sight gags such as the team of sumo wrestlers running down an Israeli street.
A Matter of Size (Sippur Gadol) (Hebrew and Japanese with subtitles; 92 min.) La Maison Française Thu., Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m. Washington DCJCC Fri., Dec. 4, 1 p.m. 4 out of 5 stars
Téchiné’s ‘Girl on the Train’
“The Girl on the Train” made its eagerly anticipated U.S. premiere at 2009’s Rendezvous with French Cinema festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and can be seen locally at the 2009 Washington Jewish Film Festival. Any picture from leading French director André Téchiné (“The Witnesses,” “Thieves,” “My Favorite Season,” “Wild Reeds”), one of my favorites, is automatically of interest, even if it’s not his very best work.
“The Girl on the Train” is based on a true story that made major headlines in France. In the Parisian suburbs, Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne from “Rosetta”) is a young woman living with her mother Louise (Catherine Deneuve), who works in day care. Jeanne moves in with her new boyfriend Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a wrestler and hustler, when he gets a suspicious job as a caretaker. She spends her time searching for work without really getting anywhere. When Louise learns that Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a prominent Jewish lawyer she knew years ago, is looking for a secretary, she decides to intervene on Jeanne’s behalf to help her get the job. Meanwhile, Franck gets into big trouble with the police, though Jeanne manages to avoid being implicated. Then, inexplicably, she makes up a claim that she was attacked and defaced by an anti-Semitic gang of thugs while riding the train.
Téchiné’s reflection on this real-life incident and its subsequent media sensation looks at social issues including religion and class, but it’s by no means neat and orderly, which is not a bad thing here. Téchiné’s directorial style lays out the events in an effectively matter-of-fact manner for the audience to absorb on its own without being force-fed the information. While the pace is leisurely, it never seems slow as the camera follows characters, well acted by the ensemble cast, as they move about from place to place throughout town. Seemingly nonchalant actions create sustainable tension that keeps the viewer focused on the screening and constantly anticipating what’s coming next.
The Girl on the Train (La Fille du RER) (French with subtitles; 105 min.) AFI Silver Theatre Mon., Dec. 7, 7 p.m. 4 out of 5 stars
Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.
American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre Besides the Washington Jewish Film Festival screenings at AFI, the Secret Policeman’s Film Festival (Dec. 10-15) features “The Secret Policeman’s Ball” (both British and American versions), “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” and more from the venerable franchise addressing themes of human rights. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
Freer Gallery of Art The “Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, Father of Anime” program celebrates the prolific Japanese creator of manga comic books and anime films and televisions episodes — “perhaps the most influential artist in these mediums,” according to the Freer. On Dec. 11 at 7 p.m., Yoshihiro Shimizu, general manager of Tezuka Productions, discusses “1001 Nights.” A veteran of Tezuka Productions since the 1960s, he was a creative consultant for the current “Astro Boy” film. On Dec. 13 at 2 p.m., Shimizu lectures on the history of anime, focusing on Tezuka’s impact. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp
National Gallery of Art Classic international selections include the 50th anniversary screening of Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus” (Dec. 6, 5 p.m.), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Two People ” (Dec. 12, 1 p.m.), Jean Renoir and Jean Tédesco’s “The Little March Girl” (Dec. 19, 1 p.m.) and the industry-changing Sri Lankan drama “Gamperaliya (Changing Village)” (Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m.). (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
Goethe-Institut The “History in Film (Geschichte im Film)” series runs Dec. 7 to Jan. 11, presenting a number of expensive, epic productions by ZDF, one of Germany’s major television networks. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.