On a recent rainy day in Manhattan, Pedro Almodóvar's tousled gray hair, generally studiously gravity-defying, looks less a result of styling than the repetitive raking of his hands. The 60-year-old Spanish writer-director, jet-lagged from his flight from Madrid, has been on a jag -- consulting on a Broadway-bound musical adaptation of his 1988 dramedy "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," as well as talking about his new film, "Broken Embraces," arguably his most personal and personally exposing work.
Starring Penélope Cruz in their fourth collaboration together, "Embraces," which opened in theaters Friday, is a mille-feuille of stories. One layer features Lluís Homar, who was in Almodóvar's 2004 film "Bad Education," playing a former director turned writer haunted by his last film, the production of which led to his blinding and further tragedy. He is approached by a mysterious director named Ray X (Rubén Ochandiano), who asks Homar's character to write a script for him. Much more happens, too much, in fact, to encapsulate simply. But ultimately, "Embraces" is an homage to filmmaking, love and the definition of family.
Says Cruz, who plays a wealthy man's mistress who becomes an actress, in a separate interview: "I think it is his most courageous film."
"I think all my films represent me, but in some way there is something quite intimate in this one," says Almodóvar, who is dressed conservatively in a gray cashmere sweater and slacks and is halfheartedly relying on a translator as he switches between English and Spanish. "It is about the passing of time in my life, and the ending of the film condenses everything I could wish for, which is a family.
"It is a little embarrassing to talk about but definitely present," he continues. "Of course, the people that I work with have become that, but there is a part of me that longs for a blood-related family. Perhaps that is madness, but nevertheless, the longing is there."
The appeal of Almodóvar, who gained international fame with films such as 1999's "All About My Mother," which won an Oscar for best foreign-language film, relies on his artful merging of yearning and madness. A transvestite has an affair with a nun ("Mother"); a mental patient longs to marry a porn star (1990's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"); relatives thought long-dead resurface (2006's "Volver"); throughout, lovers cross and double-cross each other.
As Cruz says, "He looks at people without prejudice, and he really sees them. Then he makes poetry out of that reality." Adds Almodóvar, "What is interesting to me is creating an empathy with the characters. Someone in [2002's] 'Talk to Her' is a psychopath, but I wanted to explain his humanity. You have to feel compassion for them."
Almodóvar doesn't bother with vague metaphors when it comes to the central character in "Embraces," a filmmaker who finds his career at a standstill due to the loss of his sight. It is, Almodóvar concurs, a fate he dreads even imagining. "I saw an image of John Huston shooting his last film," he says, "and he would arrive on the set in a wheelchair, connected to all these kinds of tubes, but it didn't feel pathetic to me at all. On the contrary, it felt very inspiring. I want to keep shooting even if I've lost my faculties."
There are many actors who can thank the director for his passion, among them Antonio Banderas, who starred in films such as "Tie Me Up!" and "Women on the Verge" before becoming an international star, and the director's next muse, Cruz, who has followed suit.
"This is a plus, because I don't have the money to work with a big Hollywood star, but now I can have a Hollywood star in my movie!" Almodóvar says with a smile. "But this is a kind of a miracle, not a regular thing."
Still, Almodóvar isn't interested in working within the studio system. The $10-million "Embraces" is his biggest budget film yet, and he insists he has no desire to spend more.
"You have real responsibility with people's money and investments," he says. "I remember going to lunch one day in the '90s with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. In Spain, we don't have money, we have a small market, and sometimes you have to invent actors since the industry has so few. But compared to a great director like Martin, who is supposed to be working in such better conditions, I felt so much more privileged," he says. "As I listened to their struggles making a movie and writing, I thought, 'My God, they have so many problems I don't.' I work with complete freedom and independence, and this is a real luxury."
Not to mention, of course, that certain extra perk: "Ah yes," he adds with a laugh, "and I can also call Penélope Cruz."