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Learning Curve

Almodóvar goes to the head of the class with 'Bad Education'

By Sura Wood

SPANISH DIRECTOR Pedro Almodóvar has been called a fabulist and the last great humanist of cinema; he earned both titles with a canon of films that embraces the absurdity of the human condition and celebrate sexuality in all its permutations. In recent years, he has gradually moved from the farcical complexity of early romps such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown into darker territory. His latest, the semiautobiographical Bad Education, may be his most serious and commanding venture to date, which is not to say that he has ceased to be the high priest of transgressive love or lost his taste for the outrageous. An erotic tango of murder and intrigue, Bad Education is a love letter to film noir, with a throbbing score a la Bernard Herrmann and a nod to Hitchcock's Vertigo, especially that film's plunge into obsession and multiple—and mistaken—identity.

While at Catholic boarding school, 11-year-old Ignacio and Enrique fall in love. When the headmaster, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), who is fixated on Ignacio and sexually abusing him, discovers the boys together, he expels the friend in a fit of jealousy. Flash-forward 16 years: Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), an out-of-work actor calling himself Ángel, turns up at the production office of Enrique (Fele Martínez), now a renowned filmmaker. Proffering a screenplay about their childhood experiences and Ignacio's fate—he became a drag queen and transsexual—Ignacio hopes the script will provide the breakthrough role to rocket him to stardom. At first, Enrique refuses to see him, sniping, "There's nothing less interesting than an actor looking for work," but he relents and decides to make the film. Meanwhile, Manolo, who shed his name and collar but not his hypocrisy, also shows up; a tangled web of sex, blackmail and murder ensues.

Of course, this is a noir universe where nothing is what it seems and no one is quite who he—or she?—claims to be, including the tempestuous femme fatale. Decked out in a fetching miniskirt, black stockings and sky-high heels, Bernal, with his sensual mouth and wide-eyed, luminous beauty, is a convincing seductress. And guess what? He has great legs. Who knew? Bernal, whose parents are actors, is a natural in front of the camera. Here, juggling three roles, he excels as chameleon and manipulator.

Almodóvar, who never loses control of the intricate plot, manages to weave in a movie-within-a-movie conceit and take a few shots at the film industry while he's at it. Bad Education is splendid to look at, from the opening credits—torn movie posters and ripped news clippings that mirror the skewed personalities that inhabit the plot—to the tropical palette of oranges, reds and blues that belies the twisted, subterranean motives of the characters. The film's epilogue announces that Ángel, like Bernal, becomes a heartthrob and that Enrique continues to make films with the same grand passion. The latter can also be said of Almodóvar.

Bad Education (Unrated; 109 min.), directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, phtographed by José Luis Alcaine and starring Gael García Bernal and Fele Martínez, plays at selected theaters.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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