America’s favorite Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, has achieved the unimaginable. He has made a movie whose genius can only be found in translation. Almodóvar’s latest offering, Broken Embraces, is up for a Golden Globe, and everyone this side of the pond has been raving about the director’s brilliance since it opened. Unfortunately for me, Spanish is my native language. I found Los Abrazos Rotos brazenly rote, and was left wondering when Almodóvar became a one trick pony.
I stand pretty much alone among most Americans I know in my growing distaste for Almodóvar’s films. But who am I to disagree? The bulk of mainstream U.S. critics have raced to one-up each other’s glowing reviews. The Los Angeles Times called it “a deliciously twisted tale of love.” Not to be outdone, Entertainment Weekly says it is “a vibrant, mature love letter to the making of movies.” And the New York Post went so far as to claim it is “superior to at least 99 percent of the movies released in 2009.”
Since All About My Mother, he has done nothing but rehash three clichés: whores, junkies, and crossdressers.
America’s love affair with Almodóvar has fascinated me for years. He had a brief moment in the limelight in the late ‘80s, disappeared for most of the ‘90s, and came back with full force in the past decade. His second coming was prompted by what was probably his last truly great movie, All About My Mother. Since then, he has done nothing but rehash three clichés: putas, drogos, y travesties—whores, junkies, and crossdressers. With the arguable exception of Volver, every movie he has released in the last decade has been stale and predictable. Yet America keeps calling them fresh and brave, and showering him with awards.
This country’s cosmopolitan elite has been infected with what The New York Times calls “Almodóvaria, a syndrome from which some of us are more than happy to suffer.” And this, combined with the director’s darling status among Spanish majors across the country, has made it all but impossible to be critical of his work without being seen as unsophisticated or shallow.
But there is one place where judging Almodóvar objectively is not seen as an affront to worldliness: Spain. Critics in the filmmaker’s home country have savaged Broken Embraces in a way that would be considered blasphemy in America.
Carlos Boyero, who writes for El País, one of Spain’s newspapers of record, used the title of Almodóvar’s 1984 What Have I Done to Deserve This? to headline his review and express what he felt as he sat in the theater. He went on to mercilessly lambast even the director’s personality, calling him “a masterful vendor of smoke,” and saying that “surrounded by praise and that massive attention only he knows how to create, [Almodovar] has taken narcissism to a level worthy of a psychiatric ward.” He remarks that the director seems to be “conscious, to a nauseating level, that anything that carries his signature is a cultural and sociological event.”
Boyero’s opinion that “the only emotion stirred [by Broken Embraces] from beginning to end is tedium” is widely shared in Spain. Other reviewers went so far as to call it “utter garbage,” and decried the fact that the film seems to be exclusively made to flatter Penélope Cruz and woo “early Almodóvar snobs.”
Spanish writers have also poked fun at America’s fascination with Cruz. A new adjective has been coined by Spaniards to josh who they see as a talented actress, but not really their country’s best. Jabs like “ La oscarizada musa de Almodóvar,” or “Almodovar’s Oscarized muse” appear in almost every article. Her performance in Broken Embraces has been called everything from “flat” to “merely acceptable,” but most of the blame for this has been laid on Almodóvar himself.
Personally, I was grateful for a few cameos that eased the boredom enticed by Broken Embraces, which tells the story of a filmmaker looking back to the making of an earlier movie. This film-within-a-film turns out to be a reimagining of Almodovar’s hit 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I found this self-quoting a tad masturbatory, but seeing the faces of old comedic favorites Rossy de Palma, Chus Lampreave, and Carmen Machi was at least refreshing. Unfortunately, their faces were pretty much all we got to see. Of the three, Machi was the only one who got to strut her stuff, albeit briefly and toward the end. Almodóvar used them not to showcase their talent, but to demonstrate that he can make even the brightest stars look dull—a commentary, perhaps, on the power of cinema, but annoying to those of us who just want to enjoy a good movie.
The Golden Globes will be presented Sunday. It will be interesting to see if what was derided in Spain as one of the worst Spanish-language movies of the year will be heralded in the U.S. as the best. As for the affliction of Almodóvaria that some are all too happy to suffer, the rest of us can only hope that a cure will soon be found.