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By the time he collected the original-screenplay Oscar for 2002's extraordinary Talk to Her, the ascension of Pedro Almodóvar from Spanish cinema's enfant terrible to its elder statesman seemed complete. Still, few could accuse Almodóvar of having softened his edge or making overt bids for respectability, even if Talk to Her was, at the end of the day, a necrophilia romance even a mother could love. Indeed, what's remarkable about Almodóvar is how he's not only remained faithful to his pet obsessions of gender confusion, sexual repression and taboo couplings as his filmmaking style has evolved beyond the rough-hewn, camp theatricality of his earliest features—but he's also plunged even deeper into that perverse abyss. That he is a master now, capable of some of the most gloriously expressionistic moving pictures this side of Hitchcock and Welles, has only made his subversive side seem that much more radical. Case in point: Almodóvar's latest, Bad Education, in which the sexual-abuse scandals of the Catholic Church become the backdrop for a gleefully macabre film noir whose blindingly intense colors illuminate a wide range of dark habits and where the requisite femmes fatales just might be chicks with dicks.
A fractured fairytale told thrice upon a time, Bad Education begins in Madrid in the 1980s, where successful young filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) contemplates (with some help from the tabloid headlines) the subject of his next project. But Almodóvar isn't content to rest here for long. Soon, he has us ricocheting like an out-of-control pinball between different time periods and planes of reality, fragments of lost innocence and ramparts of blissed-out movie love. Trouble first arrives in the form of aspiring actor Angel (Gael Garcia Bernal), who back when he was called Ignacio was Enrique's closest school friend. In truth, the two were in love back then, much to the chagrin of their teacher, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), who was himself infatuated with the boy-soprano Ignacio. (In what is surely the year's most haunting moment musical, Ignacio's deflowering is set to his high-voiced whine of Henry Mancini's "Moon River.")
Angel has come bearing a gift, a manuscript called The Visit, which he describes as a fiction inspired by his and Enrique's childhood. As Enrique reads the text, we're treated to scenes (filmed in a narrower aspect ratio than the rest of Bad Education) from the movie version taking shape in his mind. Set in the late 1970s, The Visit also depicts a reunion between Enrique and Ignacio—here a transvestite stage performer known as Zahara (also played by Bernal)—as well as Ignacio/Zahara's attempt to blackmail Father Manolo with threats of publishing a story (also called "The Visit") that exposes their scandalous past. From there, The Visitflashes back (that's right, a flashback within the movie-within-a-movie) to Enrique and Ignacio's childhood—their first meeting, their growing affection for each other and the escape they found from their priestly tormentor in the darkened aisles of their local cinema. And before it's all over, Bad Education will itself step back in time, purporting to show us what really happened in the 1970s between Manolo (now played by Lluis Homar); Ignacio (now played by Francisco Boira); and Ignacio's brother, Juan (Bernal again).
Got all that? Good. Because you—to say nothing of Enrique—still don't know the half of it.
Never one to back away from a challenge, Almodóvar is said to have spent the better part of a decade developing Bad Education, and watching the finished film, you get the feeling much of that time was devoted to figuring out how each and every piece of the film's jigsaw structure would snap into place. It's the director's most complexly ordered film to date—a labyrinth of ids, egos and alter egos waiting around blind corners—and may be the movies' most deliriously inventive narrative spiral since Adaptation. And like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, Almodóvar sees the malleability of cinematic time and space as something more than an opportunity for elegantly crafted sleight of hand. As he has shown in the past, from the movie-within-a-movie of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to the play-within-a-movie of All About My Mother, Almodóvar is a celebrant of the powerful, sometimes-overpowering identification that can occur between a spectator and a character onstage or onscreen. He knows how we can lose ourselves in the dark and, perchance, pick up pieces of somebody else in the process. So Zahara is not merely Ignacio transformed by hair and makeup, but rather Ignacio filtered through the sieve of Audrey Hepburn and the Spanish siren Sara Montiel, whose faces gazed down upon him in his hour of need.
In much the same way, Almodóvar, in Bad Education, seems possessed by the spirits of James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith. Part detective story, part investigation of the nature of identity, the movie is, like all of Almodóvar's recent work, a tightrope walk performed above the chasm between gravity and absurdity, tragedy and farce. Only this time, he's elected to juggle knives as he makes his way across that great divide. And if this film doesn't push the audience toward the same kind of rapturous emotional involvement as do All About My Mother and Talk to Her, I'm not sure it's supposed to—by and large, the emotional development of these characters got arrested around the age of 10.
It should go without saying that the film is visually stunning: from the Saul Bass-inspired titles that tear across the screen to the startling, Riefenstahl-like shot of rows of young boys performing schoolyard exercises, images from Bad Education stick in your head for months afterward. (And I speak as one who first saw it back in May.) But it is Bernal himself who sticks in your head the most. After struggling to get beneath the skin of the sanctified Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, the much-touted Mexican pinup here has a part—or rather, three of them—he can really sublimate himself into. And he does, shifting personae with an ease Tom Ripley might envy.
BAD EDUCATION was written and directed by PEDRO ALMODÓVAR; Produced by AUGUSTÍN ALMODÓVAR; and stars GAEL GARCIA BERNAL. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.
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