Although Penelope Cruz’s career kicked off long ago (circa 1991), it has largely been her more recent film choices that have led her to transcendence. Naturally, her collaborations with auteur and known genius Pedro Almodóvar serve as the bulk of her acting greatness. What follows is her best work thus far.
Broken Embraces: The noirish plot of Broken Embraces centers around a film within a film premise (as only Almodóvar can portray) and unfolds the mystery of a blind screenwriter from Madrid living under the pseudonym Harry Caine (Lluís Homar). After Caine’s memory is triggered by hearing of Spanish mogul Ernesto Martel’s (José Luis Gómez) death, he recounts the tale of a beautiful actress named Lena Rivas (Cruz). The tragic circumstances of Lena’s existence are compunded when she agrees to become Martel’s mistress so that she can afford to pay her father’s medical bills. Determined to become an actress no matter the price, Lena lands a role in Caine’s (who was, at the time a film director using his real name, Mateo Bianco) movie, Chicas y Maletas. In order to stave off Martel’s disapproval, she involves him in the project by making him a producer. Keeping Martel so close proves fatal, however, as Mateo and Lena fall in love with one another. In addition to the lush cinematography, Cruz looking surprisingly chic in a blonde wig and Uffie being played in a club, the narrative of the film is among Almodóvar’s–and therefore Cruz’s–most riveting.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona: As her first film with Woody Allen (later on, there would be the forgettable To Rome With Love), Cruz stole the show from Scarlett Johansson (who had already reached her pinnacle with Allen in Match Point) as Maria Elena, the unstable ex-wife of an artist named Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem). Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) may have been the stars of the movie, but Cruz stole the spotlight with her whimsical, bisexual character.
Elegy: Based on a grim Philip Roth novel (is there any other kind?) called The Dying Animal, Elegy is one of Cruz’s most forgotten films. Directed by Isabel Coizet (best know for My Life Without Me and a segment in Paris, Je T’aime), Elegy did not fare all that well at the box office. Nonetheless, the story provides a humanizing account of a lothario named David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley). As a renowned critic and professor, David encounters Consuela Castillo (Cruz) in one of his classes. Although David had long ago sworn off the idea of relationships, his attraction to her is too strong to ignore. Ultimately, he ends up disappointing her because of his own fear, and must later pay the consequences when she informs him that she has breast cancer after two years of not keeping in contact. It all sounds very soap opera-y, but somehow comes off with Coizet’s direction and Cruz’s sultry vibe.
Volver: Another later classic from Almodóvar, Volver is Cruz in one of her most light-hearted, comical roles. As is the usual way with Almodóvar farces, secrecy, incest and murder are key plot points in the film. Cruz stars as Raimunda, a hard-working woman living just south of Madrid with her daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). For various reasons, Raimunda must kill her husband. And, as if this isn’t enough stress, the supposed ghost of her mother returns to haunt her and her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas). It’s all very Shakespearean.
Abre Los Ojos: While Cruz appears in both versions of this film, Abre Los Ojos is the clear winner when measured against Vanilla Sky. A commentary on both vanity and the illusory nature of reality and time, Alejandro Amenábar’s (who also directed The Others) sophomore effort shows the genesis of what Cruz would become: An arthouse cinema goddess.