Bad Education (15)

Priests, paedophilia and one very pretty boy
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The Independent Culture

Somewhere near the end of Pedro Almodóvar's dizzyingly tangled Bad Education, two characters emerge from a cinema running a film noir season. Walking past posters of revived classics - titles like Double Indemnity and other stories of murderous lovers like themselves - one says to the other: "It's as if all the films were talking about us." You could equally say that in Almodóvar's world, all films are talking about Almodóvar, as if any given film - or indeed play, book, or piece of music - can somehow be nudged into commenting on the Spanish director's fictions. It's hard now to think of A Streetcar Named Desire without being reminded of the way the play was used in All About My Mother, while Almodóvar fans are more likely to think of Michael Cunningham's The Hours as the book teasingly glimpsed in Talk To Her than as one filmed with Nicole Kidman (oh, but how Almodóvar must have relished her false nose as a drag accessory).

The films that talk about Almodóvar films most eloquently, of course, are Almodóvar's other films, which echo each other so obsessively that it's often hard to remember which is which. But the sense of his cinema as a self-enclosed hall of mirrors, each film throwing off fragmented reflections of all the rest, goes to head-spinning extremes in Bad Education. Almodóvar's is a narcissistic cinema par excellence, but this is his first film to actually look autobiographical, not only in seemingly alluding to the director's provincial upbringing in La Mancha, but also in featuring a film-maker, Enrique (played by Fele Martínez), whose company El Azar (meaning "Chance") sounds a lot like Almodóvar's own company El Deseo ("Desire") - as ever in Almodóvar, chance and desire are the motive forces. Indeed, Enrique's office is lined with film posters uncannily resembling Almodóvar's: one even stars (if you squint at the small print) Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas, who were in Almodóvar's breakthrough hit The Law of Desire.

The mirror games only begin there. Everyone in Bad Education either has a dual identity, like its drag queens and transsexuals, or is impersonated by someone else, or played by an actor in a movie, or proves to be someone else entirely. The story starts in 1980 - when Almodóvar was starting his feature career - as Enrique is approached by a young actor, Ignacio aka Angel (Gael García Bernal), an old school friend who wants him to read a story he has written. As Enrique reads, the story unfolds on screen: it's about a transvestite, Zahara (Bernal again), who sleeps with his boyhood lover Enrique before revisiting the Catholic school where Ignacio (for Zahara is none other) and Enrique had a traumatic upbringing. Ignacio was desired by one of the priests, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), whose nerves thrill dreadfully to the boy's soprano rendition of "Moon River".

It gradually becomes apparent that Ignacio's supposed fiction is a true reminiscence... or is it? At any rate, Enrique undertakes to film the story, with Angel/Ignacio demanding to play Zahara, a role for which Enrique ironically considers him totally unsuitable. We get a bizarre frisson of recognition when Enrique shoots a scene from Ignacio's story: we could, give or take a crucial detail or two, be watching Almodóvar shoot a scene we've already watched from Bad Education. But it also feels as if we're getting a re-run of a similar film-studio episode in his 1989 film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, while the theme of a transsexual brother also echoes The Law of Desire. And, look, there are the twin deckchairs he used in Talk To Her. Confusing? Yes, and doesn't Almodóvar know it; he did, after all, once call a film Labyrinth of Passion, and his whole oeuvre seems inspired by a passion for labyrinths.

After two films where he seemed to be refining a new, unapologetically high-art sensibility, Bad Education very much looks back to earlier, trashier Almodóvar; this is also by far his gayest film in some years, certainly his most exclusively male. It also revisits Catholic themes, for the first time since his 1983 convent melo-farce Dark Habits.

There's something genuinely new here too: framed amid all the mirror play is a critique of the abuses of Spanish Catholic education, as the young Ignacio (played by a morosely pretty child named Ignacio Perez) is lusted after by the tormented Manolo. Whether or not the school's corrupt priests should be read as caricatures existing primarily in Ignacio's short story, the paedophilia theme is treated to a large degree with stern seriousness and stylistic rigour: Almodóvar uncharacteristically uses the dark, austere palette of much Franco-era cinema, and deploys Catholic motifs to uncanny effect: the beds in a dormitory are shot to resemble crosses in a graveyard, the implication being that these boys are emotionally killed before they have a chance to live.

Yet Almodóvar also pushes this section's grim melodrama to the edge of parody - then fractures it outrageously, when a drop of blood trickles down Ignacio's forehead and the screen splits dramatically in two, signifying the character's psychic split. For, in case we haven't guessed it from the Bernard Hermann pastiche of Alberto Iglesias's score, this is a story of divisions and doublings in the lineage of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Compelling as it is to enter the film's maze, Almodóvar disappoints when it comes to leading us out of it. When Father Manolo reappears in a new guise and the story shifts into its film noir phase proper, the momentum sags dreadfully before the story lurches to an abrupt ending.

This is two-thirds vintage Almodóvar, not a coup like his last two films, but older fans will welcome the return of the counterculture sleaziness that he's downplayed of late. Otherwise, the prime card is the performance of Gael García Bernal as - by my reckoning - at least three characters. The young Mexican star of Amores Perros has been the week's unrivalled poster boy in Cannes, for both this film and The Motorcycle Diaries, where he plays the young Che Guevara. Variously innocent, ominous, intense and delicately flirty, he not only comes across, when playing Zahara, as the most feminine of all Almodóvar's trannies - more even than the ones actually played by women - but easily the sexiest. But then he's offset by Javier Cámara, the portly lead of Talk To Her, whose own sweet-natured drag turn here resembles John Belushi doing Suzi Quatro.