Skirting the issues

Three times a lady: Gael García Bernal plays a chameleon with a complicated past in Pedro Almodóvar's latest tale of melodramatic youth and complicated adulthood.

Don't let the NC-17 rating scare you away from Almodóvar's brilliant tale of a vengeful transvestite

Pedro Almodóvar's spellbinding Bad Education has already been celebrated for so long - from its opening-night slot at last spring's Cannes festival through its appearance on dozens of year-end Top-Ten lists - that its arrival here almost seems an afterthought. Its distributor is practically sneaking it into Texas, giving little indication when it might open in local theaters.

Have we already come to take Almodóvar, whose recent films have been uniformly brilliant, for granted? Or is America really that skittish about the subject matter of this film, which involves transvestism and transexualism, exploitive gay relationships, and a pedophile priest? (Evidence seems to point to the latter explanation: There's some sexually explicit material here, but in a heterosexual, non-transgressive context one suspects it would not be considered enough to justify the MPAA's NC-17 rating.)

Whatever the reason, audiences owe more attention to a picture that so brilliantly combines the personal and the whimsically invented, that is so satisfyingly suffused with a love of movies (particularly with Hitchcock, whose Vertigo hovers precipitously over this tale), and that twists and turns its story while steering us effortlessly through the convoluted layers.

Describing those layers would involve ruining some of the film's pleasure, but suffice it to say that we understand these characters through movies within the movie, through stories true and false, through flashbacks and anecdotes that are nested within each other so delicately they ought to come crashing down in a narrative mess. But the diversions feel natural enough that viewers may not even register many of them; the filmmaker is flourishing with one hand so we can't see the sleight of the other, and the trick works beautifully.

The main story revolves around two young men who haven't seen each other since a brief but intimate childhood friendship. One is now a successful filmmaker whose career hints at Almodóvar's own; the other is an aspiring actor who has written a screenplay inspired by their childhood. The actor (Gael García Bernal of Motorcycle Diaries) wants to play the lead - and we know he should, since as the director reads the script we're able to see how this movie would play.

The screenplay is a mysterious look at the aftermath of child molestation, in which Bernal's character - once the focus of a priest's ardent love - grows up to become a drag queen living just above the poverty line. Desperate, he decides to blackmail the priest.

The filmmaker doubts Bernal's physical appropriateness for the drag queen role, but we see what he can't visualize: Bernal, whose sex appeal has been a hot topic for a couple of years, loses little when he puts on a wig and makeup. He has a trashy carnality that makes a scene in which an ostensibly straight man refuses to push him out of bed believable.

   Bad Education (La Mala Educación)

Dir. and writ. Pedro Almodóvar; feat. Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lluís Homar, Javier Cámara, Petra Martínez, Nacho Pérez, Raúl García Forneiro (NC-17)

The priest has his own narratives, both within and outside this screenplay. He winds up being dragged out of childhood memories and into the present, while the old friends struggle through a relationship whose dynamics change from moment to moment. Both the "real" movie and the stories it contains veer from melodrama to mortal danger, and the structure encourages viewers to wonder how all these tales relate to another narrative: the real life of the man making Bad Education. (For his part, Almodóvar has said he was never abused as a child, but that doesn't keep him from dangling hints that he identifies with his characters.)

The movie works as a thriller without leaving the arena of Almodóvar's career, a world in which bizarre or comic scenarios are populated by characters much richer than those of your typical genre film. Like Talk to Her, which won the director an Oscar, Bad Education is not a movie that leaves your head once the thrills are digested. However tantalizing the hints of real-world connections are, there's more than enough on the screen to keep the gears turning - and more than enough going on in its characters' lives to haunt viewers even after they've figured out the mechanics of the plot.

By John DeFore


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