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January 18, 2005

Almodóvar's latest a mind - and gender - bender

I'm not sure that I could accurately describe the plot of Pedro Almodóvar's new film La Mala Educación (or Bad Education, although the translation is misleading), so I won't even try. This is partially because I only have 800 to 1000 words, and I'm not sure that would be enough. La Mala Educación stars Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, The Motorcycle Diaries), who, in the words of Roger Ebert, "is turning out to be as versatile as Johnny Depp."

Bernal plays a young man named Ignacio, who returns home to see an old school friend, Enrique (talented, relaxed Fele Martínez). The two haven't seen each other in 16 years, and Enrique doesn't recognize Ignacio at first. He claims this is because of Ignacio's new beard—but we soon come to discover this is not the real reason for his hesitation.

Ignacio is an actor who has written a screenplay based on actual events (some fictionalized) from the two boys' childhood. Enrique is a filmmaker, obsessed with clipping newspaper articles that are quite bizarre (like "Woman eaten by alligators") in order to find source material for his films. What ensues is, I'm told, typical Almodóvar—and too complicated to explain—though I will say that by the end, you will understand most of the events of the film. But trying to piece them together will only leave you exhausted.

This being my first Almodóvar film, I didn't know what to expect. I certainly understood the general events of the plot, but I had no idea that this film would leave me feeling so intrigued and frustrated.

Bad Education has a twisting plot and heavy themes (sexuality, molestation) but is still terribly engaging. The film received an NC-17 rating mainly because of its explicit homosexual sex scenes (by the way, tastefully done, very appropriate, and never pornographic) and profanity. But the most engaging aspect of the film was definitely Bernal. I have seen both Y Tu Mamá También and the very recent Motorcycle Diaries, and I have continued to see a growth in this young man's ability to completely lose himself in his characters.

You can see the making of a legend at work. At one point, Bernal plays an extremely convincing woman/drag queen/transvestite, Zahara. Zahara is sexual, open, devious and beautiful. Bernal is comfortable and exudes all these qualities in different ways. He is able to move back and forth between characters, making their similarities seem completely new each time I encountered them.

I was certainly reminded of the brilliant Johnny Depp, one of the best screen actors of all time, while remaining completely enthralled in the presence of this gifted young performer. Bernal is so focused and relaxed that I had no problem watching him ride a drunken, passed-out Enrique because I saw him as a woman, and I saw "her" yearning for the man she loved, the man she hoped would wake up and see her eyes and love her.

That said, I'm not sure if this scene was even based on truth—or if it was a dream, hallucination, or another detour from the plot. I am not sure what I was witnessing. Was Ignacio ever a drag queen? Did Enrique ever come to see him? Did they have sex? And then, the question that changes the entire film: Is this really Ignacio? And that's it; I will say no more!

The screenplay should be nominated for an Academy Award because it is brilliant and has some of the same qualities that I loved in another excellent 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It has the ability to manipulate the audience, to coil upon itself. Some of this is by accident, but most of it is the work of a genius director.

Almodóvar (an Academy Award-winning screenwriter) is not formal in his direction. He is loose and experimental. He is, however, a filmmaker who can see where he is going. Take for instance, a masturbation scene in a cinema involving Ignacio and Enrique as very young boys. At first glance, an audience may see pornographic exploitation of young boys. But what Almodóvar sees, as we discover later in the film, are two boys who are so afraid and so in love—on their own terms—that they feel bad for what they've done (ironically, right before Father Manolo scorns the boys, and later molests Ignacio). "I sold myself for the first time that night," Ignacio says. He did it for Enrique. He was in love.

This film is primarily about love and secondarily about lovers carrying worlds of pain and confusion. It has a "murder mystery" quality to it, partly achieved by the haunting soundtrack. At the end, we discover the identities of these characters, their motivation, their hurt, their jealousy. But most importantly, we discover Ignacio. We understand, we frown, we ponder, and then we nod.

Sound simple? It's not. By the end of this film, I realized that I had no idea what was going on during the last 104 minutes. I was confused, I was frustrated, I was lost. But most of all, I was impressed. Despite a tricky plot that left me bewildered, I exited the theater thinking hard about La Mala Educación—and wondering if I had enough money to see it again.