Bad Education

Published: Thursday, Feb. 3 2005 2:32 p.m. MST

Gael Garcia Bernal displays depth and range in playing three incarnations of one role in "Bad Education."

Diego Lopez Calvin, Sony Pictures Classics

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Superficially, "Bad Education" comes off as a collection of Pedro Almodovar's greatest hits — junkies and drag queens and Catholics, oh my! — with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink denseness about it.

This most personal film from the Spanish writer-director, who has shifted from the ridiculous ("Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown") to the sublime ("Talk to Her") throughout his storied career, is also his most challenging. It's so complicated in terms of structure, tone and subject matter, it demands repeated viewing.

Not that that would be a bad thing. As it morphs seamlessly from comedy to romance to drama to film noir, "Bad Education" features rich performances and sumptuous visuals that very much deserve a second look.

Playing three incarnations of the same role, Gael Garcia Bernal shows more depth and range than even his recent excellent work as young Che Guevara in "The Motorcycle Diaries" would suggest. The handsome young actor is also astonishingly passable in drag.

When we first see Bernal, though, he's sporting a scruffy beard as he walks into the office of film director Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez). He says his name is Ignacio, and that he's an old friend of Enrique's from school. Though the two haven't seen each other in 16 years, Ignacio looks different from how Enrique remembered him.

Ignacio says he's an actor now and insists on being called by his stage name, Angel. He offers a short story to Enrique, who's looking for inspiration for his latest film. It's called "The Visit," and it's about their childhood together. While Enrique isn't interested in rekindling their romance, he is intrigued by Ignacio's writing.

As Enrique reads the short story, Almodovar jumps all over in terms of perspective and time, from Madrid in 1980 when the characters are adults to flashbacks to their youth. Characters who initially seemed villainous, like the school principal, reveal themselves to be surprisingly sympathetic. Sometimes they're even portrayed by different actors: Padre Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho) becomes Mr. Berenguer (Lluis Homar), and he teaches Enrique the truth about Ignacio/Angel, whose name is really Juan, and who dresses as a woman in fantasy sequences.

As in all Almodovar films, "Bad Education" features striking visual images, some of which walk the line between sincerity and camp. Your appreciation for all this will depend on your level of familiarity with and/or reverence for Almodovar's work. If you're not a fan, it will seem gratuitous — weird for weird's sake — and you'd be justified in thinking that. If you love him, as legions of loyalists do, you'll view "Bad Education" as a colorful tour-de-force: a Pedropalooza, if you will.

"Bad Education" is rated NC-17 for strong language, nudity, sexual situations and drug use. Running time: 104 minutes.