Much-touted director tones down style in favor of substance

It's good to see Pedro Almod—var finally growing into his reputation.

In what might be called a severe case of premature exultation, the Spanish bad boy's every film has been declared the work of a master Ñ if not a genius. This is not to say his outrageous drag operas and naughty kink-a-thons weren't good; just that they rarely seemed worthy of the sort of hymns of heavenly transport that Orson Welles might only dream of.

But in his more recent works, Almod—var has begun to reach deeper. The subversive has yielded to the substantial, the extravagant to the elegant. The splashy hues are more subdued, but richer in shading. The sense of humor is less outrageous and more insinuating.

And insinuation runs rampant in 'Bad Education,' an adventurous, mysterious and gripping summation of Almod—var's career to date. As multifaceted as a diamond, it's a daring and dark genre-blending, gender-bending puzzle that requires the director's recently increased level of sophistication to pull off.

The setup is as much as can be fairly revealed Ñ or easily described. It is 1980 in Madrid, and Enrique Goded (Fele Mart’nez), a successful filmmaker not unlike Almod—var himself, is stuck for a new project. Into his office comes Ignacio (Gael Garc’a Bernal, of 'Y tu Mam‡ TambiŽn' and 'The Motorcycle Diaries'), an aspiring actor and barely remembered friend from their days in Catholic school 15 years ago.

Ignacio has written a story based on those days and the boys' fateful relationship with one of the priests. Enrique finds the story fascinating enough to film, and somewhat reluctantly agrees to give Ignacio the leading role.

What happens next is virtually impossible to describe, beyond saying that Enrique discovers Ignacio is a more experienced role-player than he appears to be. The series of events that transpire become a mirror maze in which the real and the artificial, the remembered and the imagined, tilt at strange angles and reflect what is happening off what has already happened. And the way it works is so particularly cinematic that it truly can't be explained, just seen.

Almod—var's appreciation of melodrama is used here to inform familiar elements of Hitchcockian thrillers and film noir. 'Vertigo' is a clear influence, just as Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock are echoed here in the music of Alberto Iglesias. The twisted relationships owe more than a little to James M. Cain's novels and the films based on them, and it's a typically Almodovarian touch to have both the leading man and the femme fatale be the same person Ñ Bernal, who in drag looks startlingly like Julia Roberts.

Though everything that happens here lies along a fault line beginning with the childhood trauma, there is nothing sensational or exploitive in Almod—var's approach. The structural trickiness allows him to portray the events without detailing them, and, even more important, to reveal (in classic noir fashion) how the past never relinquishes its grip.

Neither does 'Bad Education,' though its artful complexities don't allow for the same soulfulness and emotional beauty of Almod—var's remarkable 'Talk to Her.' Still, it's a compelling measurement of what he's learned since those school days, school days, fearful cold and cruel days.

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