La Mala educación (Bad Education)

(2004) *** 1/2 Nc-17
105 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Pedro Almodovar. Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Javier Camara, Daniel Gimenez Cacho (II), Lluis Homar.

Pedro Almodóvar can be a tough nut to crack, though the deliriously effusive director of Bad Education provided critics, by way of the film's press notes, a holiday nutcracker: an elaborate thesis on his own film which cites dozens of film noir precedents and offers theoretical metaphors (sample comment: "Bad Education is the story of a triple triangle...multiple stories that, like Russian dolls, are hidden inside each other and are really only one"). The director's intellectual enthusiasm looks good on paper, and it plays well on screen in one of the year's most distinctive and stylish films.

The layered narrative of Bad Education brings to mind both the classic Rashomon and the neo-absurdist Adaptation. Almodóvar fractures one basic story into constituent elements: a short story, a film within a film, and a third perspective of untransmuted memory compete for ultimate veracity. Fele Martínez (Abre los ojos, Talk to Her) plays Enrique Goded, a young film director who's feebly searching for his next story. It walks into his office in the form of Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries), playing the first of three characters. Much to the director's surprise, the enthusiastic young man introduces himself as Enrique's old school friend Ignacio and pitches his short story "The Visit".

"The Visit" details the two men's childhood love, interrupted by the school's principal, Father Manolo. After discovering the boys together, the pedophilic priest expels Enrique to keep Ignacio for himself. In this lushly photographed segment, Almodóvar masters moods of nostalgia and the incipient fears of burgeoning sexuality and adult intrusion (a child's haunting rendition of "Moon River" emblematizes these themes and the children's newfound love of cinema). Back in present reality, Ignacio--who asks to be called Angel--reveals his ambition to take a role in the film, which Enrique has pledged to make. Angel wants to play the role of the transvestite drag queen, Zahara, who was once Ignacio; to prove his commitment, Angel begins to apprentice with a transvestite nightclub performer.

Eventually, "The Visit" reaches the screen, but not before Enrique's volatile relationship with Angel deepens and the waters of truth muddy considerably. Bernal, in his many incarnations, becomes a gender-warped femme fatale, and the late-breaking appearance of an aged Father Manolo adds the final angle to the director's "triple triangle," a prism of unreliable narratives. True to form, Almodóvar gets unimpeachable performances from his cast (particularly Bernal, whose bold turns prove--to anyone still doubting--that he's more than a pretty face) and paints his frames with gleefully lurid strokes.

The director plays with frames—the borders of his art—by narrowing at one point to a Super-8 window, and at others to doorways which enclose Bernal. Precocious to a fault, Almodóvar passionately homages Hitchcock, Kubrick, and the noir canon. Martínez's Enrique is, of course, a version of Bad Education's real director, and the film's obsessive, lustful fixations include those the characters and Almodóvar have on cinema. Bad Education artfully projects universal struggles of what we want to believe, what we want to convey to others, and the elusive truth.

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