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Almodóvar’s latest: sexual confusion 

A number of commentators observed in Pedro Almodóvar's last movie --- the eccentric, ambiguous, essentially comic Talk to Her --- indications of some softening and mellowing, like some exotic melon, with an unwonted sense of sweetness and sympathy. Although his work in fact often displays a blatant overripeness, a fragrant decadence that the director at times positively wallows in, that picture actually suggested a somewhat more straightforward and serious approach to its characters and concomitantly, a somewhat less contemptuous attitude towards its audience. It employed its bizarre subjects and situations for a relatively humane (for Almodóvar at least) treatment of its themes, an apparent movement in a new direction.

            With his latest, naturally highly praised movie, Bad Education, the director continues his fascination with a number of persistent ideas and images, suggesting that his alleged maturation may have been a temporary readjustment in the service of some unusual material. The new picture lacks the simple beauty of its predecessor, which framed its story with two remarkable dance sequences, but develops that film's significant narrative complexity to a high level of sophistication and apparently intentional confusion.

            In a baldly obvious sequence near the end of the movie, the director sends two of his characters to a theater featuring a film noir festival, with a poster advertising Double Indemnity. Almodóvar thus deliberately labels his own work, linking it with those dark classics of greed, lust, and betrayal, which perennially enchant the European imagination. The plot and situations that precede that moment, however, never really demonstrate more than a perfunctory connection with the movies he cites, making the allusions seem merely mechanical and even pretentious.

            In fact, the bright Spanish sunlight and the clashing colors of the typical Almodóvar palette, so different from the traditional play of black and white, tend to neutralize any sense of ominous passion and fatal treachery, those standard items in the noir catalogue. Although the story involves sex, blackmail, and murder, it also displays so much of the director's penchant for erotic comedy that it rarely achieves much in the way of genuine emotional engagement. Too much of the movie seems trivial or even merely silly, which hinders the development of the sort of tension that its purported inspiration normally generates.

            Bad Education substitutes a most self-consciously complicated narrative method for the usual emotional complexity of film noir. It begins with a young man, an actor (Gael Garcia Bernal) identifying himself as an old school chum named Ignacio, showing up at the home of Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), a movie director, hoping to convince Enrique to adapt a story he has written and cast him in the film. The picture then dramatizes part of the story, turning it into a movie in fact starring Ignacio as a transvestite who attempts to seduce an old school friend, a situation that will repeat itself in many variations throughout the film.

            The movie then proceeds to move back and forth in time, showing the two friends as children, classmates at school, and their sexual victimization by a priest, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Complicating the narrative further, it turns out that Ignacio, who wants to be called Angel, is actually Ignacio's brother Juan, who forms a sexual and later, criminal liaison with the same priest, now no longer a priest and now played by a different actor (Lluis Homar); Angel also plays a woman named Zahara in the film made from his story. The former priest evens shows up on the set and introduces himself to the director as the villain of the movie Enrique is directing.

            The constant shifts in time periods and narrative modes, the frequent fusion of text and film, account for a considerable amount of the appeal of Bad Education. Its many, sometimes comic confusions of identity, especially in the character of Ignacio/Juan/Angel/Zahara, transform the relatively simple story of homoerotic obsession into a palimpsest of character and action, a blurry text that constantly reflects back on itself. Despite all the clever manipulation, Almodóvar must resort to several paragraphs of prose at the end to wind up his story, an odd, flat conclusion to the movie's highly conscious complexity.

            Almodóvar happily accepted the usually dreaded NC-17 rating for a film that despite its homosexual orientation seems no more shocking than the average R flick at the megaplex. His fascination with transvestites and transsexuals resurfaces in Bad Education, which allows him to turn Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in The Motorcycle Diaries, into a disconcertingly attractive woman. In what must have been a difficult role, Bernal must carry most of the film and to his credit, he manages quite well, both in and out of drag, a sexual confusion that nicely typifies the movie.

Bad Education (La Mala Educación), starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lluis Homar, Javier Cámara, Petra Martinez, Nacho Perez, Raúl Garcia Forneiro, Francisco Boira, Juan Fernandez; written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. The Little Theatre.

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