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A review of Bad Education (NC-17)

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Angel/Juan/Zahara.
  • Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Angel/Juan/Zahara.

*Bad Education (NC-17)
Sony Pictures Classics

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar one-ups himself with his newest film, Bad Education, adding noirish villainy and plot twists to his signature visual style and kinky but playful sexual content. The most autobiographical of Almodovar's films, Bad Education also deals with perhaps the touchiest subject of the filmmaker's career -- the abuse of children by priests entrusted with their moral, intellectual and physical education.

It's an unusual and very personal treatment, by turns creepy and comical, but never forgiving or glib.

The film opens with a jazzy title sequence that immediately suggests an homage to Hitchcock. The musical score continues that thread. Then, as the story twists and turns around three levels of plotting, the audience knows it is in capable hands that can deliver all the thrills -- visual, stylistic and dramatic.

Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) enters the film as Ignacio, a struggling Madrid actor paying a visit to his adolescent schoolmate and first love, now an accomplished filmmaker, Enrique (Fele Martinez). Ignacio convinces Enrique to take a look at a story he's written, based on the boys' experiences at the hands of Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), the priest who shattered their friendship years ago and permanently affected both their lives.

Ignacio's story, "The Visit," soon becomes Enrique's newest film in production, starring Ignacio as a transsexual named Zahara. It's a while before we realize we're watching the filming of the story, then we are surprised again when Ignacio is revealed to be something other than he appears.

To reveal any more of the plot would rob you of the pleasure of confusion and discovery, the sense that you are in the hands of a master.

If you do not want to imagine gay men having sex, don't go to Bad Education. If you are worried that the NC-17 rating means there will be bare genitalia dangling before your eyes, be assured there are not. The sex, and there's plenty of it, is discreetly filmed, but the ratings board apparently fears for fragile American sensibilities.

Bernal is spectacular as Ignacio/Zahara and as a third personality. Besides being gorgeous with his cat eyes and Julia Roberts lips, the guy uses his physicality as an acting tool. He transforms from squat and bulky to svelte, simply in the way he walks and flexes or unflexes specific muscles.

Martinez mostly observes as Enrique, but he transmits a trustworthiness and lost innocence that is convincing. Cacho is haunting as the fallen priest, neither monstrous nor holier than thou, but sadly human and deeply flawed.

The greatest pleasure of Bad Education, however, is Almodovar's unique talent with color and texture. No other filmmaker uses the palette he chooses, and no other director relies so heavily on visuals to keep the audience's eyes glued to the screen, constantly stimulated and pleasantly surprised. (Spanish with English subtitles.)

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Kimball's Twin Peak

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