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May 13, 2004 2:00 AM
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CANNES REVIEW: The Contradictory Revelations of Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education"

CANNES REVIEW: The Contradictory Revelations of Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education"

by Peter Brunette



Fele Martínez and Gael García Bernal in Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education." Photo by Diego López Calvin, courtesy of El Deseo.


The 57th edition of the Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday night with Pedro Almodovar's latest, the narratively inventive but emotionally tepid "La Mala Educacion" (Bad Education). While always watchable -- and a qualitative quantum leap over last year's fest opener, the ghastly French costume drama "Fanfan La Tulipe" -- the Spanish filmmaker's most recent effort comes nowhere near the heights of recent triumphs like "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her." Mexican dreamboat and rising international star Gael Garcia Bernal, who's at the film's center, is by far the best thing about it, but after a while even his seductive smile becomes tiring. Following the promising Hitchcockian opening credits (which so thrillingly recall the Saul Bass/Bernard Herrmann collaboration in such films as "Psycho" and "North By Northwest"), and an occasionally interesting set-up of the characters and situation, the film heads resolutely downhill.

Almodovar once again expertly works his trademark territory -- the interplay of gender and sexuality, delivered in the simultaneously exploited and critiqued generic form of melodrama -- but, as with the American scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman's latest films, here the director has mostly marshalled his talent toward the elaboration of a plot with a mind-boggling (but, unfortunately, not heart-boggling) series of Brechtian twists and turns. The central story concerns a promising love affair between two young boys at a boarding school, an affair that is doomed by the machinations of a pedophiliac priest named Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho).

Beyond that, things become murky, and many scenes, we learn as we go along, are enactments of stories, scripts, and tall tales told within the main film itself. Truth and fiction intertwine and become impossible to separate. Recognizable figures include a film director, Enrique (Fele Martinez), and an actor, Angel (Bernal), who has written a story based on what he claims was the thwarted love that occupied both their lives when they were younger. But little is what it seems to be, and the continuously contradictory revelations pile up quickly. Unfortunately, the revelations are largely uninteresting and do little to make us care.

The openly accepted framework here is a homosexual world of cross-dressing drag performers and plenty of explicit gay sex, indicating perhaps that Almodovar has finally decided to indulge his obsessions directly (as he did in his earliest films) rather than mediating them, as is his wont more recently, through the lives of women. Familiar Spanish obsessions such as rampant anticlericalism (an ethnic tic that goes back to Bunuel and beyond) make a satisfying appearance, and the director's affectionate, deeply sincere depiction of young, same-sex love seems fresh and occasionally touching. A self-consciously melodramatic score purposely runs along two tracks simultaneously -- the genuine and the ironic -- and provides much of the film's interesting punctuation. Little jokey touches like a young boy's rendition of "Moon River," to the accompaniment of a lovestruck priest's guitar on a class outing, or the grotesque lineup of laughing heads encountered at a museum, reaffirm Almodovar's surrealist heritage (also from Bunuel), but aren't enough to really involve viewers emotionally or, worse, even intellectually.

As an experiment, "Bad Education" is mildly interesting in the way it jostles our emotional, identificatory investment in a variety of characters when they're revealed to be different people than we thought they were. But this is flimsy ground indeed for an emotional investment the size that a film this ambitious requires.

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