Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie, Broken Embraces, is a film about film, a film about love and a film about Almodóvar’s love of film and love. With stylistic flashbacks to several of his past 17 films, especially All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and tips of the hat to Hitchcock and Rossellini, Broken Embraces weaves between film noir and signature vibrant Almodóvar melodrama.

The film, before descending into a twisted labyrinth of fractured characters, fragmented storylines and self-reflexive investigation, begins in present-day Madrid with the introduction of Mateo Blanco, a.k.a. Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a filmmaker turned writer who is blinded in a tragic accident that claimed both his sight and the love of his life, Lena (Almodóvar’s muse, Penélope Cruz, in her fourth film alongside the director). In the aftermath of his heartbreak, he has turned to a quiet life of writing, all the while looked after by his old friend Judit (Blanca Portillo).

Almodóvar wrote both Homar and Portillo’s roles specifically for them, a fact that leaves both Spanish actors agog. Despite having previously worked with the director, Homar in 2004’s Bad Education and Portillo in 2006’s Volver, neither was prepared for such a profound professional compliment.

“When we finished Volver,” Portillo begins, “[Pedro] said ‘I will work with you again.’ And you think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

When he called with the script for Broken Embraces, both actors jumped at the chance to return to an Almodóvar set, but found their sophomore effort far more intimidating than they expected.

“The first time, you are not conscious because [you think], ‘Oh, this is wonderful. It will never happen again,’” Portillo says with a laugh. “The second time, there’s responsibility.”

“To work with Pedro is always a privilege,” Homar adds. “It’s incredible. He knows so much about the characters, about everything. He knows exactly what he wants in each moment. He’s so demanding, but, in the same moment, you can have fun with him. Everyone on the set wants to give their best for him. He’s a genius, and to work with a genius gives you a lot of satisfaction.”

Both actors describe Almodóvar as a perfectionist with a tender heart. Exacting and meticulous, he’s also quick with a joke and constantly open to suggestions.

“He works with you,” Portillo says. “He constructs everything, the characters, the movie, but when he’s with you, he listens to you and exchanges with you.”

“He’s very clear,” Homar says. “He’s very specific. Sometimes you understand what he wants, but you can’t give him exactly that because he’s so precise. If you need 0.5 percent of something, that’s what he’ll see, and he’ll zero in on that.”

“Working with him is like having an X-ray taken,” Portillo jokes. “He’s like a surgeon. He opens you up and knows where he must touch. [But] if you trust him and give him your soul, he takes care of you.”

Cruz has obviously done just that in cultivating her longstanding relationship with the director, but Portillo believes their connection is based on a deeper level than just the creative. She feels it’s their kind souls that make them so compatible professionally, as well as their tremendous diligence.

“She’s a good actress because she’s a good person,” Portillo smiles. “Penélope has a wonderful heart. You can see it in her eyes. She’s a hard worker, very demanding with herself and very funny. She has something in her like a small girl and, on the other side, she’s a great woman.”

“She’s a star, in the very good sense of the word,” Homar offers, reverently. “She has something that’s a gift from heaven.”

Broken Embraces releases in select theaters Dec. 11.