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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Lessons in desire and love

Bad Education

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Spanish
Opens April 9
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Director Pedro Almodovar unleashes his deepest and most personal obsessions in "Bad Education," the film that declares once and for all, that camp (at least its sense of irony) is dead. Or rather, that the issue of gayness no longer has to prove anything and gender distinctions (yawn) are now beside the point.

News photo
Gael Garcia Bernal in "Bad Education"

Using an almost all-male cast, "Bad Education" blends the destructive, go-for-broke love affairs of film noir (think "Double Indemnity") and complex Hitchcockian plot twists to create a very particular world of steamy sex, love, intrigue and betrayal. But mostly, it's about love.

Never before has Almodovar stressed its sexual side with such insistence. "Bad Education" is drenched in the scarlet hues of physical passion, drawing scenes of such explicitness it rocks the notion of Christian mores at its very foundations. (In another era, Almodovar would have been burned at the stake after being tried by a spluttering, raging Torquemada). In fact, much of the imagery seems to be channeling something from a Roman-era tapestry showing pagan gods in the pursuit and celebration of the pleasures of the flesh, in all their blissful innocence.

Love, as described in "Bad Education," is the kind that defies logic or analysis and remains locked in the enthrallment of sex. The characters all have a ferocious appetite for it and their cravings are immediate and real. The sudden dilating of the pupils, the flaring of nostrils, the not-so-secret swallow lodging in a prominent Adam's apple -- moviegoers with delicate sensibilities should note that Almodovar goes for a lot of frontal, extreme close-ups as well as nudity.

The director could hardly have been more explicit. Unlike the stylized cool of "Talk to Her" or the tasteful and calculated sentiment in "All About My Mother," this latest effort oozes and bubbles like a bloody river of volcanic larva. There's enough steam here to heat up at least an acre of Alaskan tundra.

"Bad Education" is the most autobiographical of Almodovar's works, drawing on his boyhood experiences spent in a Catholic boarding school. And though much of it could be interpreted as an indictment against the Church, Almodovar insists in the production notes that this isn't the case: "It was just how things were during the 1960s and '70s."

In one of the most disturbing sequences, a 10-year-old boy is made to sing "Moon River" to a priest while all around him, the other (less handsome) boys are allowed to go off and play -- the boy is the priest's pet favorite and so is given no such freedom. As he sings in a sweet soprano, the priest watches with undisguised delight and then beckons his charge into nearby bushes. Several minutes later the boy runs out in a flood of tears while the priest emerges slowly, adjusting his robe.

But soon we see that the boy is by no means a stranger to lust; he accompanies his best friend to a movie theater and in the dark, they tend to each other's sexual needs. Clearly, in the world according to Almodovar, love and desire are one. When it strikes, people (regardless of age, social position, anything) are powerless to resist.

After a stint of this "education," the boys are separated and the story jumps forward 16 years. Enrique (the boy's best friend) has become a successful filmmaker, pondering over his next project when Ignacio (the priest's favorite) suddenly walks into his office, brandishing a screenplay he has based on their childhood love affair. Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal of "Motorcycle Diaries" and the metaphor for Latino machismo) is also an out-of-work actor eager for a part in Enrique's (Fele Martinez) movie and initially it seems as if the pair could take up where they left off.

But Enrique, drawn as he is to Ignacio, has vague suspicions about his friend's real identity and is slightly repelled by his determination to get the movie made, with him in the leading role. And so begins a game of hunter and prey, with the pair switching roles every few days, circling one another with burning eyes while in the back of their minds lurk dark secrets and murderous impulses. Ooh.

Equally exciting is the subplot of transvestite Zahara (Garcia Bernal in a double role), whose very presence oozes a bizarre but irresistible sexuality. A singer in a gay nightclub, Sahara gets the hots for every young hunk in the audience and the scene where she banters with one such fan in a parking lot, and then playfully frisks him (he can't find his keys and asks her to look for them in his pockets) -- is a lesson in ribald seduction.

"Bad Education" teaches us that being a seducer/lover is much more liberating (if destructive) than being trapped by self-imposed sexual restrictions. As for the inexplicable magnetism that draws one body to another -- it's a mystery that must be embraced. Doesn't sound all that bad.

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