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Confessions Of A Drama Queen 

Almodovar graduates with honors

As Pedro Almodovar eases into middle age, his films have lost some of their superficial, guilty pleasure flamboyance and become deeper and richer.

The Almodovar of old, steeped in shock value, wild sex, campy bad behavior and carnival colors in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, hasn't lost his sense of fun. Drag queens and the forbidden fruit of cute (heterosexual) boys in tight white underwear fascinate the director as much as ever.

But unlike the perpetually adolescent John Waters, who seems terminally stuck in the Mad magazine phase of his career, Almodovar has struck a provocative balance between camp and heartfelt emotion, sex and regret, rude comedy and genuine pathos. A kind of model adult in a world of shoddy pretenders, Almodovar has the passion of youth and the wisdom of age.

Almodovar's latest film, Bad Education, is a superb, albeit convoluted blend of all of those complex, competing strains. It manages to somehow balance queeny bravado and a malaise so deeply buried, the film approaches the hysteria of classic Hollywood melodramas but married to gay misbehavior, making for a very heady brew. And Bad Education is raunchy in the best and most shocking possible sense. Ever the bad boy, Almodovar is still out to goose every bourgeois piety with his delicious bad attitude. There are, to be sure, classic Almodovar scenes of mutual masturbation in a Franco-era movie house and the supremely bad taste-meets-pathos moment where a drag queen who has stumbled upon her long lost first love continues to grind away at the hot young stud even after he's passed out in a boozy stupor.

Almodovar recognizes that life is awash in painful complexities. And nowhere are such emotional sand traps more apparent than in the story of Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Enrique (Fele Martinez), former boyhood lovers who meet again as grown-ups in 1980s Madrid.

Enrique is now a hip film director and Ignacio is a struggling actor with an autobiographical story he thinks would make a good film. Enrique decides to make Ignacio's story his next project, as Almodovar's film waffles back and forth between scenes from their boyhood and the present, uncovering some buried secrets and twists that lie in the two men's past.

But Almodovar is not just doing a film noir retread in this wild fandango of fact and fiction. He seems to be expressing the scorched earth, debilitating confusion that trauma produces in his characters' lives.

That central trauma, established in extended flashbacks, is the prolonged and eerily conveyed molestation of 10-year-old Ignacio. One of the most grotesque aspects of Ignacio's rape at the hands of his Catholic schoolteacher, Father Manolo (a skin-crawling Daniel Gimenez Cacho), is how expertly Almodovar conveys the priest's selfish interpretation of events. With his moony, ecstatic expressions, Manolo seems to believe he is engaged in some kind of exquisite romance. Lust has so fogged his vision, he has actually cast a child as a love object.

Dispensing with the graphic representation of pedophilia, Almodovar fixes on the creepy aftermath and prelude: altar boy Ignacio having to slowly, ritualistically remove Father Manolo's vestments, or forced to sing like some trained bird to the priest on his birthday. To the director's credit, there is always a certain reserve on Almodovar's part; a refusal to fully give in to emotions but instead express them through some alternative means. As a result, an atmosphere of intense, bottlenecked tension fills nearly every scene.

Exploitation is a chilling undercurrent of many of the sexual relationships in Bad Education, from the priest whose abuse ruins a child's life to the increasingly brutal relationship between the grown-up Enrique and Ignacio. Despite his veneer of queeny knowingness, Almodovar is one of the few film directors to understand that sex is where the truly sad and lonely aspects of people's lives can be revealed. In Bad Education, sex is disconnected and damaged.

We've come to expect camp and flamboyance from Almodovar. He can take extreme subjects like drug addict nuns (Dark Habits) and make them not only palatable but fun. To his credit, Almodovar has successfully made the transition from drama queen provocateur to a mature and sensitive artist. In Bad Education, Almodovar has come out on the other side of camp, to find sincerity, and a nearly unbearable sadness.

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