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Bad Education

Hitchcockian, Sirkian, BuÃuelian ' some directors turn into adjectives, so completely do they become associated with the worlds they've created on film. And if his name lent itself to adjectives, Spain's Pedro AlmodÃvar would surely join that select club. Since he first came to our attention, 20-some years ago, AlmodÃvar has been creating a world all his own ' a crazy, mixed-up world that takes its cues from all the movies AlmodÃvar devoured while growing up. Hitchcock, Sirk and BuÃuel are part of that world. So is Frank Tashlin. But those are only the ingredients. It's the way AlmodÃvar mixes his ingredients that makes his movies so indelible ' melodrama plus screwball, Imitation of Life plus Pillow Talk, and with more than a dash of gender-bending.

Bad Education, AlmodÃvar's latest, bends gender almost to the breaking point. And it's got a movie-within-a-movie, flashback-within-a-flashback structure that could induce vertigo. Speaking of which, Hitchcock's Vertigo seems to be a touchstone. The score evokes Bernard Herrmann, violins churning in the lower register. And the story begins when a long-lost love appears out of the past. But Vertigo's is-she-or-isn't-she plot is nothing compared to what AlmodÃvar puts his characters through. And instead of Kim Novak, the icy blond, we get Gael GarcÃa Bernal, the hottie from Mexico who's been setting screens on fire in Y Tu Mamà TambiÃn and The Motorcycle Diaries. Luckily, Bernal also looks fabulous in a dress, a requirement for playing a femme fatale.

Bernal is Ignacio, a struggling actor/writer who shows up one day at the production offices of a movie director named Enrique (Fele Martinez). Years ago, the two were passionately in love while attending a Catholic boarding school, and although Enrique can't quite believe that this is Ignacio, he's intrigued by a story the young man's written called "The Visit," which tells what happened to the two of them before and after they were separated by a Catholic priest who wanted Ignacio for himself. In the story, which AlmodÃvar presents as if it really happened, Ignacio, now a drag queen who goes by the name Zahara, wreaks revenge on the pedophile priest. But is Ignacio really Ignacio? And if so, is he also Zahara? And if not, who is he?

These are only some of the questions that arise as this multilayered film unfolds. It's been compared to a set of Russian nesting dolls, but that metaphor doesn't account for the way the film's layers blend into one another. And one of the reasons they blend so well is Bernal, who plays multiple roles and surrenders himself to each of them. As Zahara, the drag queen who's turned to crime as a result of the crimes committed against him as a child, Bernal is asked to assume various compromising positions, like simulating oral and anal sex with a guy who's passed out from drinking too much. What a trouper! And what a convincing job of impersonating a female impersonator from someone who just got done impersonating that macho icon, Che Guevara.

Impersonation is one of the themes of Bad Education, characters assuming new identities when the old ones are found wanting. Another theme is storytelling, art's ability to shape our lives into something we can handle. There are three different narrators, none of them entirely reliable, and if this is starting to seem like a lot for one movie to juggle, AlmodÃvar has become an expert juggler. The movie's tone is a little flat, especially given its melodramatic subject matter. And you get the impression that AlmodÃvar, while venturing into rough terrain ' the movie will not be on the Vatican's must-see list ' is on his tiptoes. But how many directors would use child molestation as the springboard for a smoky thriller about love and corruption, sin and redemption?

Only one that I can I think of.

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