By Christopher Bollen
It's hard to imagine Pedro Almod'var making a film about blindness. After all, Spain's leading cinematic dynamo has built a career on capturing the frenetic Technicolor spectacle of love and psychosis in the gaudy whirlpool of contemporary Madrid. Screening such iconic films as Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or What Have I Done to Deserve This? in black and white would be an experience tantamount to checking out a Salvador Dal' exhibition while wearing sunglasses. In other words, not seeing is not getting the wizardry that is Almod'var.
But blindness is the ambitious theme of the director's 17th feature, Broken Embraces, which tells the convoluted story of a successful screenwriter and former film director named Mateo Blanco, played by Llu's Homar, who lost his sight -- and the love of his life -- while making his last feature film. Using a lot of cinematic tricks -- flashbacks, films within films (including a 'making of'), and absurdly brilliant chance revelations -- Almod'var follows Blanco as he steals a corrupt businessman's mistress (Pen'lope Cruz), casts her as the lead in his movie, and then falls apart until he's a blind hermit cared for by his former production manager and her fatherless teenage son, Diego.
Broken Embraces is washed in darker, moodier hues than Almod'var's earlier eye-popping productions, although Cruz provides much of the beauty we've come to expect from a filmmaker who has concentrated most of his lens time on women. But the surprise attraction of the film is 24-year-old Spanish actor Tamar Novas, who plays the dedicated Diego. Like Antonio Banderas before him, Novas arrives on screen like some dark-eyed, wolf-toothed confirmation that all is right with Spanish youth today. As Diego, Blanco's nurse by day and a club DJ by night, Novas stands as the film's only trace of untainted innocence, rendering a character who is part listener to Blanco's story and part confused, mostly mute Telemachus in search of a missing father.
In real life, Novas is much more assured of his path in the world, although he admits that when he first auditioned for Broken Embraces he didn't expect to win the part. 'I first read for a casting agent,' he explains, 'and when they called me back to audition for Almod'var, I just went in thinking this was a good opportunity to practice with a genius. Obviously, I've loved Almod'var since I was little. I used to have a tape of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that I watched over and over as a kid. When we made the film, it was actually Women on the Verge's 20th anniversary.'
The son of a schoolteacher and a youth hostel proprietor, Novas grew up in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain. He was 11 when he was spotted by a casting agent who was touring schools in the region, which led to his cinematic debut in 1999's La Lengua de las Mariposas (Butterfly's Tongue). 'I loved to act, but it wasn't until 11 that I realized you could make a living at it,' he says, which seems precocious even by Hollywood child star standards. Novas moved to Madrid for college but left a year short of finishing to focus on acting. Before Broken Embraces, his biggest international role was in Alejandro Amenab'r's 2004 film The Sea Inside, in which he played a child nurse to a disabled protagonist. 'I was upset that I couldn't go to Los Angeles for the Oscars,' he remembers. 'I was 17. I watched The Sea Inside win best foreign language film on a television in a bar.' Between working with Amenab'r and Almod'var, Novas has had roles in a number of Spanish films and TV series (a dedicated YouTube fan base clips his appearances together in obsessive montages), but he claims he isn't the Banderas-level Spanish star that one might expect. 'I'm a shy person at heart,' he says. 'And apart from actors like Pen'lope or Javier Bardem, it's mostly the regular television stars that receive the paparazzi attention in Madrid. For the most part, they leave me alone.'
These will probably be the last days of anonymity for the young actor, who seems to appreciate that appearing in an Almod'var film is the Spanish equivalent of stealing screen time in Spielberg. But playing the eye candy in Broken Embraces wasn't all about staring silently into the camera and letting his good looks do the work. To prepare for the part, Novas and Homar spent a 'blind day' together, with the elder actor donning an eye mask and letting Novas lead him around Madrid. They went to a movie, and Novas narrated what was happening on screen. 'It was amazing -- that feeling of whispering every detail of a work of art,' he says. 'To really care about somebody -- to be the eyes of that person. I learned more in those two hours than in weeks of studying at home. That kind of love is a big part of Diego's character.'
Another big part of Diego's character is his ambiguous sexuality. Even in the scenes of Novas behind his DJ turntables, Almod'var never tracks the shot back for the audience to glimpse what kind of club -- gay or straight -- Diego works in. 'Sometimes when Pedro looked at me, I felt he knew me better than I knew myself,' he says. 'He wanted me to figure out the character as I went along. I asked him a bunch of questions about Diego, specifically his sexual condition, and Pedro said, 'Sometimes when I write a character I know that, and other times I leave it unclear.' Diego doesn't really know who he is, so while he isn't the main part of the story, he's also trying to figure himself out. He remains quiet and listens. I think that sexual confusion is a necessary component of that character. And that is part of Pedro's gift. It isn't a comedy or drama, laughter or tears, it's all of those things mixed together. People connect to his films because he finds something deeper in human beings.'
What wasn't sexually ambiguous was the wrap party for the film, which coincided with Madrid's gay pride celebration. 'It became a huge party in the center of town, overrun with all of the people celebrating in the street,' Novas recalls. 'We all got pretty drunk and danced and had a great time.' Going forward, Novas isn't destined -- or doomed -- to be typecast as Spain's favorite handsome bicurious nurse. He's already wrapped his next film, Daniel Calparsoro's made-for-television drama La Ira (The Anger), in which he plays a psychopathic killer who dismembers his victims. 'I basically play a devil,' he says, with the same wide-eyed expression that looked so adorably innocent in Broken Embraces.
Christopher Bollen is editor at large of Interview.