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'Bad Education': Powerful Knowledge

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page C01

The Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is up to his usual tricks in "Bad Education," a rapturous movie-within-a-flashback-within-a-fantasy-sequence that combines the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the noir sensibilities of Raymond Chandler, the tensile storytelling of Hitchcock and Almodovar's own signature sensibility.

If "Talk to Her," Almodovar's last film, was a homage to everything female, then "Bad Education" is his chance to pay respect to the men who have informed his life and work, even if their motivations weren't always benign. In the movie, a young filmmaker named Enrique (Fele Martinez) is paid a visit by an old chum from Catholic school named Angel (Gael Garcia Bernal), who has written a story called "The Visit" about their early experiences with a sexually predatory priest named Manolo.

Fele Martinez, left, and Gael Garcia Bernal in Pedro Almodavar's striking film. (Diego Lopez Calvin -- Sony Pictures)

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Indeed, it's several unexpected visits that propel "Bad Education" along on its twisty course, wherein the vagaries of memory, desire, identity and deception intertwine in an increasingly kaleidoscopic tale of revenge. It's a testament to Almodovar's skills as a storyteller and stylist that "Bad Education" qualifies as a gripping, old-style thriller, even when it traffics in the trashy tabloid melodrama and lurid pulp imagery to which Almodovar has always been devoted. Throughout his 30-year career, the filmmaker has managed to carve out a niche that only he can occupy, as the director of films that, although playfully titillating and wildly colorful, tell deeply humanist stories about characters for whom he has profound respect.

In "Bad Education," that is Bernal's character, who as a young man in Franco-era Spain becomes the object of sexual obsession for Father Manolo, when he himself is falling in love with young Enrique. As the story shifts from the 1960s to the 1970s and the 1980s, this enigmatic, troubled young man remains a mystery, until viewers have no clear idea of who the protagonist really is. Luckily, this protean, increasingly problematic young man is portrayed by Bernal, last seen in "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Here he delivers the most layered, difficult performance of his promising career. Whether he's dolled up as the transvestite impersonator of the Spanish cult actress Sara Montiel or shuffling around in a teenager's gym shorts and flip-flops, Bernal is never less than believable -- and thoroughly magnetic -- in a role that demands he take on a dizzying array of contradictory personas.

That viewers can keep track of the characters who come and go throughout "Bad Education" is to the credit of Almodovar, whose control of the narrative and its emotional tone is, as usual, flawless. Perhaps no other director could combine an obsessive knowledge of classic films, spiritual yearning, sentimentality and camp humor in such convincing and entertaining fashion; surely no one working today does so with Almodovar's panache and compassion. (Even Father Manolo, "Bad Education's" villain, is portrayed as a man weakened by his own compulsions rather than unambiguously evil.) More than tweaking his audience with sexually subversive material or dazzling it with his extravagantly lush palette, Almodovar is interested in expressing his love for his chosen medium, not only its history and grammar, but its luminous, almost tactile properties. To watch "Bad Education" is to revel, along with Almodovar, in the power of cinema to take us on journeys of breathtaking mystery and dimension and beauty. He worships at the altar of cinema; filmgoers are invited to pray along with him, or quietly leave the church.

Bad Education (109 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle), in Spanish with subtitles, is rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.

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