- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” is a skillful revamping of the film noir genre, but beneath its mannered surfaces is a celebration of the “movida,” that period of cultural efflorescence in post-Franco Madrid.

The old generalissimo kicked, eventually, in 1975 and Spain’s 1960s followed almost immediately, a few years late. As a character in Mr. Almodovar’s ecstatic homage puts it, public expressions of bodily freedom had shoved aside the hypocrisy of the old guard, with its dirty secrets of the sacristy.

The movida coincided auspiciously with the beginning of Mr. Almodovar’s maverick movie career, and there’s an unabashed nostalgia in “Education” not just for the films noirs of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder (“Vertigo” and “Double Indemnity” seem to be touchstones) but for all the multifarious human flotsam that washed up in the movie houses and drag-queen burlesque bars of early-‘80s Madrid.

His story here is a tangle of urban grotesques and vivid liturgical formalism, and darn complicated to sum up. Try on this decoder ring: There’s not just a movie within a movie; there’s a partly fictional movie adaptation within a movie.

When Gael Garcia Bernal (the Mexican hunk of “The Motorcycle Diaries”) first shows up, in 1980, he’s wearing a rugged beard and flannel shirt and claims to be Ignacio Rodriguez, once a promising writer.

Ignacio, we’re told, was a schoolmate of Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), a filmmaker in a creative rut (he desperately scours tabloids for ideas). Yet Enrique swears he doesn’t recognize him. Confusing things even further, Ignacio insists on being called by his stage name, Angel.

Enrique’s doubts are quickly dispelled by Angel’s promise of fresh creative juice: a short story called “The Visit,” an account of their lamentable experience in a Catholic boys’ school where they were furtive lovers.

Flash backward three years; we’re in the fantasized adulthood of “The Visit.” Mr. Bernal is now Zahara, a transvestite cruiser, and “Talk to Her’s” Javier Camara is his finger-snapping, man-diva sidekick. Claiming to be Ignacio’s sister, Zahara conspires to blackmail the priest (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho) who molested Ignacio.

Now, Mr. Almodovar’s is a consensual moral sense: Transvestites, yes; child abusers, no. But he’s too much of a showman to betray anything but an operatic anger. As in the whimsical silent-movie sequence of 2002’s “Talk to Her,” which concealed a rape, the first abuse of Ignacio, in 1964, is suggested off-screen while the choirboy’s classmates catch a dip in the river to the sounds of “Moon River.”

All the Cannes-driven hoopla about Mr. Almodovar’s zeroing in on the church’s sex scandal was overblown; he goes relatively easy on the RCs. Father Manolo is never dreadful. He’s even sympathetic at times.

But where is the Father Manolo of the ‘80s? And is Ignacio/Angel really who he claims he is?

As Mr. Almodovar layers fantasies across a 25-year chronology, keep an eye on Mr. Bernal, whose performance as a femme fatale is virtuosic, his normally sober face clearly delighting in the wig, lipstick and Jean-Paul Gaultier dress worn by his character.

He’s also pretty brave. Mr. Almodovar employs no tricks of angle or shading to stretch Mr. Bernal’s short frame. In fact, the actor’s slightness makes the sex he undergoes seem like degradation — which is part of Mr. Almodovar’s intricately executed ruse.

Threading all this together is Mr. Almodovar’s reverence for the cinema; it’s church for him. Movies awaken his characters to the tragedy of romance and reflect back their transgressions. The offending clergyman says after a double feature: “It’s as if the films were talking to us.”

Precisely.

“Bad Education” talks too much toward the end, and some viewers might wish for the permissive values of the movida to, er, movida on out, but at the heart of Mr. Almodovar’s complicated narrative is a warning about the immoral potential of the passions — the thing that put the noir in film noir in the first place.

***

TITLE: “Bad Education”

RATING: NC-17 (Pervasive sexuality; nudity; adult themes, including sexual abuse of children; drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar. Produced by Agustin Almodovar. Cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine. Score by Alberto Iglesias. Edited by Jose Salcedo.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles.

WEB SITE: www.badeducationmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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