Dir/scr: Pedro Almodovar. Spain. 2004. 104 mins
Pedro Almodovar's status as Europe's most distinctive and bankable auteur is effortlessly maintained with Bad Education, a rich fusion of film noir and melodrama spun with all the intricacy of a spider's web. Autobiographical memories and Almodovar's trademark preoccupations with death and desire are imbued with the sensibility of an encyclopaedic film buff.
The focus on intimate personal issues, reflections on recent Spanish history and predominantly male characters mark this out as slightly different territory for Almodovar. It may not quite match the technical virtuosity and emotional warmth of Talk To Her (Hable Con Ella) but it has an ambition, scope and maturity that once again show Almodovar to be in a class of his own.
Fans will not be disappointed and the film has already given the director his biggest ever domestic opening in Spain. The whiff of scandal, sexy star Gael Garcia Bernal and tour de force storytelling should all combine to make Bad Education irresistible arthouse fare, capable of equalling the international performances of All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre) and Talk To Her. It will also provide the Cannes Film Festival with its most credible opening night film in several years.
In previous 'Almodramas', the writer-director has drawn magpie-like inspiration from such diverse sources as Tennessee Williams, Ingmar Bergman and Joseph L Mankiewicz. Here, he plunders the doomed lovers, deluded saps and dangerous liaisons of Hollywood film noir. Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and John M Stahl's Leave Her To Heaven are obvious influences and two of the characters even visit a cinema holding a Film Noir Week in which the film eerily echoes their own lives.
The most striking comparison is with Hitchcock's Vertigo as Bad Education shares its obsessive romance, double dealing and feverish revelations. The opening titles would make Saul Bass proud and the pounding Alberto Iglesias score is firmly in the Bernard Herrmann tradition.
The story begins in Madrid in 1980. Enrique Goded (Martinez) is a young, gay director with three films to his credit. Desperately seeking inspiration for his fourth feature, he is visited by a handsome young man who claims to be his old schoolfriend and first love Ignacio Rodriguez (Bernal).
Ignacio has changed his name to Angel Andrade and is pursuing a career as an actor. He presents Enrique with a story entitled The Visit that has been partly inspired by their childhood experiences at the hand of abusive school Principal Father Manolo (Gimenez-Cacho) and by Ignacio's subsequent life as Zahara, a drug-addicted transvestite.
Zahara's tragic decision to confront Manolo adds piquancy to the story and convinces Enrique to rekindle his interest in Ignacio and make The Visit the basis of his next film.
In typical Almodovar fashion, nothing is entirely as it first appears. Impressions are formed and certainties challenged with each fresh piece of evidence that is presented to us, especially the key revelation that one of the characters has a brother. In film noir terms, Gael Garcia Bernal's manipulative Ignacio fulfils the role of sultry femme fatale. A hard-boiled creature who bewitches soft-hearted men, he is a contemporary make-over of the kind of character that might once have been played by Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford.
The actor gives a carefully shaded performance that is sexy, appealing and always credible. He even bears a disturbing resemblance to Julia Roberts when appearing in full drag as Zahara.
By contrast, Enrique remains an aloof figure as he knowingly plunges into the whirlpool of Ignacio's deception. Lluis Homar creates a good deal of sympathy for the older Manolo (now called Mr Berenguer) as the victimiser becomes the victim of his own desires.
Viewed in some quarters as a vehicle for Almodovar to attack the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, Bad Education is surprisingly measured in this respect. However inappropriate it may be, Father Manolo is seen to have a genuine love for the young, angelic Ignacio (Perez) and his decision to separate him from Enrique (Forneiro) is an act of jealousy.
The childhood scenes have a lyrical quality although Almodovar's outrageous sense of humour surfaces during an idyllic day out in which the boys swim in the river and Ignacio croons Moon River before Manolo tries to have his wicked way with him.
Almodovar's gift has always been to communicate the complex workings of the human heart in a way that can be universally understood. At its core, Bad Education is a bittersweet reflection on those who are enslaved by love and how it has the power to both inspire and destroy.
Prod co: El Deseo
Sp dist: Warner
Int'l sales: Focus Features
Prod: Agustin Almodovar
Exec prod: Esther Garcia
Cinematography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Prod des: Antxon Gomez
Ed Jose Salcedo
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Main cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Javier Camara, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho, Lluis Homar, Francisco Boira, Ignacio Perez, Raul Garcia Forneiro