Spain's El Deseo has held a number of screenings for Pedro Almodovar's Cannes opener Bad Education and early press reaction suggests that Cannes is set for a provocative opening.

The film proves that commercial success has not domesticated Almodovar: the idiosyncratic director could spark controversy with Bad Education's storyline of a priest desperately in love with a schoolboy, and various gay sex scenes.

Almodovar says his intention is not to be polemical, and he vows the decade spent fine-tuning the script weeded out any vengefulness over his own Catholic school upbringing. He equally insists the Church would have little legitimacy denouncing the film considering the recent spate of paedophilia cases among its own ranks.

Proof in Spain will come in less than ten days when the film premieres on March 18 through Warner Sogefilms.

Press reactions to early screenings have been glowing, yet as one local journalist writing in national newspaper El Mundo noted recently, Almodovar at home "cannot be judged objectively... he constitutes a true dogma of faith in our culture."

The editor of monthly consumer magazine Cinemania and a colleague gushed that they turned up for an interview "still affected after having watched Bad Education, a film as expected as it is startling. An agonising drama and at the same time a classic thriller, to be digested slowly."

Former San Sebastian International Film Festival director turned columnist Diego Galan praised "the bravery of the upcoming Cannes festival for opening with a film as corrosive and free as Bad Education."

Galan also touched on the unpredictability of audience response to this and, to be fair, most Almodovar films: it "will leave no one indifferent, liked or not, raised or rejected."

The adult protagonists of Bad Education, played by Gael Garcia Bernal (minus Mexican accent) and Fele Martinez (the shrunken lover of Talk To Her's silent film), are still reeling from their childhood experiences at a Catholic boarding school, scenes Almodovar films as sheer terror - alluding to, without ever actually showing, sexual abuse by a priest. Foreboding music by regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias adds to the mood.

The flashback 1960s scenes form part of an auto-biographical film-within-a-film made by two of the children themselves, movie director Enrique (Martinez) and actor Ignacio (Bernal), first crushes reunited in the early 1980s as adult lovers. A plot twist evolves into a third storyline set up as a thriller and involving the same characters during yet another period.

The complicated narrative structure is reminiscent of Talk To Her, as is the fact that the cast is led by men. But the story comes closest to 1987's Law Of Desire, a key scene from which - where Carmen Maura confronts a priest who loved her when she was a male schoolboy - was inspired by the same original Almodovar short story as Bad Education.

Many of the usual Almodovarian touches are here, but already the director is facing questions about what may well be his most serious and dark drama yet, one he himself labels "film noir."

Fans may miss his acid humour, concentrated here in a tag-along 1970s transvestite character played to the hilt by Talk To Her's Javier Camara. His hopeless cowgirl stage act is only outnumbered by the sultry lip-synch performed by a Gaultier-clad Bernal, the film's male femme fatale and, in drag, a dead ringer for Julia Roberts.