`Bad Education' needs lighter reading

MOVIE

Solemn approach works against film's comic potential

MovieReview

February 04, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

**

After seeing Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, fans of Almodovar's Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) may feel as out of it as the space aliens in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, who said they preferred Allen's "early, funny films." Almodovar can be an inspired wiseacre with a virtuoso control of physical and psychological slapstick. But instead of men on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Almodovar here gives us heavy-breathing psychological striptease - a transvestite dance of seven veils.

Bad Education boasts a juicy subject that cries out for comical treatment: the selfishness of emotions, including "high" ones like love and "pure" ones like a thirst for justice. The movie pivots on child molestation in a Catholic school. But the abused kid's quest for revenge turns wildly corrupt when he grows up, and the victimizer, too, becomes a victim. These hairpin turns would be apt in a black comedy. They're bogus in a "serious" movie that aims to be about men achieving adulthood belatedly, by experiencing torment and agony.

The introductory scene of a movie director (Fele Martinez) scouring sensational news headlines for subjects provides Bad Education with a chipper, show-biz opening. And the picture's coiling storyline - complete with multiple flashbacks from several points of view, and a film within the film - should provide the audience with snappy, game-like narrative delights.

But these days, Almodovar doesn't make playful farces. He makes self-important melodramas that he tries to hype into grand opera.

We soon learn that the director, Enrique, shared a boyhood love with a schoolmate named Ignacio, only to have the predatory Father Manuel bust it up. Sixteen years later, Ignacio returns to Enrique's life unexpectedly, as an actor with the stage name Angel (Gael Garcia Bernal). He arrives at Enrique's office carrying a script that chronicles their school days and continues with Ignacio's transformation into a camp performer and transsexual, with a plot that culminates in blackmail and worse. Revealing more from that script or this movie would deprive the viewer of Bad Education's modest pleasures.

What should be funny about this twisted picture is how inevitably its characters slide downward. Almodovar has a true and nasty instinct for the psychology of exploitation.

In his films, it usually takes two to pull off that old emotional-manipulation tango, no matter how much either partner protests. Potential irony and comedy abound in the tawdry spectacle of characters constantly lowering each other's expectations (and ours), especially since the schoolboy tale is set in Spain's repressive 1960s and the grown-up tale takes place amid the glittering cultural revolution of the post-Franco 1980s - the era of Almodovar's own flowering.

But the movie is too solemn to generate suspense or titillation, and the antiheroes are too wan to summon identification or empathy. All that powers the film is the unmodulated intensity of Mexican heartthrob Bernal as Angel/Ignacio and his drag alter ego, Zahara. The movie gets as overblown and masochistic as the worst Joan Crawford vehicle. Its saving grace is that Bernal really does have his own deep-set, smoldering variation on Bette Davis eyes.

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated NC-17

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