It doesn't matter what Spain does or, more accurately, doesn't do. Its unapologetic economic languishment is irrelevant as long as they've still got a filmically productive Pedro Almodovar. With the auteur's most recent emotionally wrought effort, Broken Embraces, the country's state of atrophy is more than forgivable. Employing his muse for the fourth time, Penelope Cruz stars as the tragic character of Lena, an aspiring actress who occasionally falls victim to the monetary temptations of hooking, but generally works as a secretary for a Spanish mogul named Ernesto Martel.
Although Lena is determined to live honestly in her quest to make it as an actress, her father is unexpectedly diagnosed with stomach cancer and her family cannot afford the medical expenses of a sympathetic doctor. Enter an eager Ernesto, just waiting to pounce on the opportunity to make Lena feel indebted. At first she tries to go back to the bordello (under the pseudonym Severine), but Ernesto already knows about her alternate occupation and calls her as soon as she reenlists. This foils her plans completely, forcing her to ask Ernesto for the money as a secretary, not a prostitute.
The other side of the coin in this story is writer-director Mateo Blanco, who we are introduced to as Harry Caine, a blind scriptwriter who picks up women that offer to help him cross the street. Initially, Almodovar does not weave the two plots together; in fact, it seems like each story could be its own separate film. Mateo's agent, Judit (Volver's Blanca Portillo), along with her son, Diego (Tamar Novas), often visit Mateo to make sure he's okay and to collaborate with him on various film projects. It is not until Diego mixes MDMA with a bit of meth laced with Coke (the soda kind, just to be clear) that the entire story unfolds, including the reason for Mateo's blindness. Diego's curiosity about a man named Ray X who comes to Mateo with an idea for a movie irritates and unnerves his mother before she leaves to scout locations in Barcelona. After Diego recovers from his ill-fated journey into clubland narcotics, Mateo offers to tell him why Judit is so afraid of Ray X, a disturbed and newly open homosexual that just so happens to be the recently deceased Ernesto Martel's son.
At this point, the two disjointed stories merge into one and Almodovar settles into the visual aestheticism that is Penelope Cruz. Like any man who likes men, Almodovar knows what makes a woman beautiful. He is a master in the field of cultivating the most attractive features of his feminine inspiration. He centers entire scenes around Cruz's elegance and allure, finding any excuse to dress her up garishly, as with the donning of a variety of wigs before Mateo shoots the film Girls and Suitcases and in the scene in which she puts on the most ostentatious gold necklace to be worn since the musical heyday of MGM.
Almodovar may have evolved his directorial tactics over the years, but the intensity of his scripts and the overall presence of a karmic balance remains evident in what is undoubtedly the best foreign film of 2009.