Pedro Almodovar's long-gestated, instantly identifiable "Bad Education" welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education onto a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from classy mellers. Pic has potential to extend Almodovar's offshore appeal beyond its already broad arthouse-to-crossover base.

Pedro Almodovar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable “Bad Education” welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education onto a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output. Superbly orchestrated, visually impressive pic has the potential to extend Almodovar’s offshore appeal beyond its already broad arthouse-to-crossover base. Pic has already presold to several major territories, including the U.S. (where Sony Classics plans a fall release). Following its Spanish bow March 19, pic opens the Cannes Film Festival in May.

“Education,” as per every project by Europe’s premier arthouse helmer, comes with a scent of scandal. Its release comes at a time when revelations of abuse are shaking the foundations of Catholicism in the U.S. Marketing will determine if and how this will affect the film’s commercial prospects.

Classy, ’60s-style mock thriller credits, courtesy of Juan Gatti, open onto 1980 Madrid, and the office of youthful but blocked movie director Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez). While going through newspaper clippings in search of inspiration, he’s interrupted by a wannabe actor and old schoolmate (Mexican thesp Gael Garcia Bernal), who gives Enrique a story he’s written, “The Visit.” This friend, it turns out, was Enrique’s first love at the school they attended, a strongly disciplinarian, Salesian Catholic institution.

Enrique reads “The Visit,” which then turns into a film within the film. Transvestites Paca (Javier Camara, wonderfully mannered in pic’s sole comic turn) and Zahara (also Garcia Bernal) are treading the boards in a seedy nightclub. After Zahara picks up a character called Enrique (Alberto Ferreiro) — who falls asleep while they’re having sex — he realizes Enrique is his old lover from school.

Short of money, Zahara revisits the school, where he meets his former lit teacher, Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). He attempts to blackmail the priest with stories about Father Manolo’s sexual abuse of a boy called Ignacio.

Pic then flashbacks to the childhood of a boy called Ignacio (Nacho Perez), with Father Manolo playing the guitar on a river bank as Ignacio, in one of pic’s few nods to the kitsch Almodovar of old, sings “Moon River” for him. The following scenes, which are film’s strongest, depict the priest’s frustrated love for Ignacio in parallel with Ignacio’s developing love for a boy called Enrique (Raul Garcia Forneiro).

Back in the movie proper, Enrique decides to make the script his next project. His school friend-cum-actor is keen to play the role of Zahara. Enrique is not sure about this, or even whether his pal is who he says he is. The latter storms off in a rage, but accidentally leaves behind his cigarette lighter, which has an address of a bar on it. This leads Enrique to Galicia in northern Spain, where he meets the school friend’s mother (Petra Martinez) and finds out the truth.

Almodovar aficionados will be reassured that most of his later stylistic hallmarks are present and correct: abundant pop-culture refs in the form of cheesy Italian pop songs, nods to classic movies (including “Double Indemnity” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and film posters; a brief trip to a pueblo, which contrasts with the slick urban setting of the rest of pic; games with identity and fiction vs. reality; and, as ever, truckloads of transvestites.

In terms of plotting, “Education” is Almodovar’s most ambitious project to date. But the Russian-doll structure hangs together beautifully, and parallels between the three main storylines cleverly lend a sense of mass to the whole edifice, even when some developments are over-signaled.

The price the pic pays for the pleasing complexity of its plot is a lack of room for maneuvering characterization. One of the joys of Almodovar’s movies has always been their offbeat, throwaway lines, or oblique, ironic glances; here, there are precious few of either. Humor, likewise, is scarce.

The shift away from melodrama leads to a loss of the emotional undertow visible in recent Almodovar pics like “Talk to Her” and “All About My Mother,” with their grief-stricken, profoundly sympathetic protags. It’s ironic that the most affecting moments are for the hateful but weak Father Manolo, as he struggles to control his inner conflict. Other characters are largely a gallery of self-seeking types.

The large cast is mostly fine across the board, with Garcia Bernal nicely nuancing his overlapping roles (and acquitting himself well in a Spanish, rather than Mexican, accent). Gimenez Cacho is superb as the quiet-spoken, stiff-backed Father Manolo, his gaunt features registering both pleasure and shame. Whippet-faced Martinez plays Enrique rather too coolly, given the emotional depths the character must be plumbing.

Antxon Gomez’s sumptuous art direction and Almodovar’s perfectionist eye pick out prettiness in even the least promising of images, such as torn posters on an old cinema wall. But the visual assault of dense, creamily rich colors and super-crisp light and shadow, always framed to perfection, feels at odds with the priests’ squalid morality. A lengthy swimming pool sequence is erotic but emotionally barren, with an emphasis on beauty per se — dripping buttocks, slo-mo bodies under water — that’s closer to pop videos.

Contrast between the repressive Spain of the boys’ childhood and the explosive moral release of the country during the late ’70s — in which Almodovar himself was a key player — is elegantly rendered by small details. One example is how ’60s actress Sara Montiel is shown later to become a gay icon.

Tech credits, courtesy of Almodovar’s stalwarts, are outstanding, with Miguel Rejas’s sound work deserving special mention. Alberto Iglesias’ jagged, Bernard Herrmann-inspired score is suitably menacing.

Bad Education

Spain

Production

A Warner Sogefilms (in Spain)/Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of an El Deseo production, in association with TVE, Canal Plus. (International sales: Focus Features, New York.) Produced by Agustin Almodovar. Executive producer, Esther Garcia. Directed, written by Pedro Almodovar.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jose Luis Alcaine; editor, Jose Salcedo; music, Alberto Iglesias; art director, Antxon Gomez; sound (Dolby Digital), Miguel Rejas. Reviewed at Warner Sogefilms screening room, Madrid, March 4, 2004. (Also in Cannes Film Festival -- opener.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Enrique Goded - Fele Martinez School Friend/Zahara - Gael Garcia Bernal Father Manolo - Daniel Gimenez Cacho Sr. Berenguer - Lluis Homar Paca - Javier Camara Mother - Petra Martinez Young Ignacio - Nacho Perez Young Enrique - Raul Garcia Forneiro Enrique (in "The Visit") - Alberto Ferreiro

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