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MOVIE REVIEW

'Bad' is Almodovar at his ingenious best

The last shot of Pedro Almodovar's ''Bad Education" is a close-up of the word ''passion." For anybody who's had the pleasure of luxuriating in one of his movies, that's a glorious redundancy -- like ''Nightline" deciding to end its broadcasts with a shot of the word ''news."

''Bad Education" is all-consumed with passion, and the way it brings out the crazy, the bad, and the beautiful in people. This is a brilliantly structured hall of mirrors that wraps Catholicism and the movie industry into a tasty film noir. It's Almodovar's most ingenious movie since the days of his punk experiments in 1980s Madrid, where, incidentally, a lot of this movie unfolds.

After a credit sequence that pays direct homage to Saul Bass and his opening titles work for Hitchcock, we move right into the office of Enrique (Fele Martinez), a film director cruising the newspaper for a movie idea. In walks his childhood friend Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal). The two were paramours in Catholic school in the mid-'60s until Father Manolo, a priest obsessed with the angelic choirboy Ignacio, expelled Enrique from the boys' self-made Eden so he could have Ignacio to himself.

In the 16 years since they last saw each other, Ignacio, now a starving actor who wants to be called Angel, has written a screenplay about their childhood. He wants Enrique to direct the script, called ''The Visit." The director takes it home to read while Almodovar transports us inside its pages.

Ignacio/Angel is now a transvestite/junkie/prostitute named Zahara, whom we meet performing in a dive bar. The audience is less than riveted, which is a put-on because Bernal is so utterly mesmerizing in drag. (His performance in pants is also audacious). What's especially astounding about Bernal in a curly red wig is the way it hilariously consolidates the movie-star universe: Zahara could be Julia Roberts's ''Pretty Woman" hooker trapped in the same body as Veronica Forque, the star of Almodovar's 1993 ''Kika."

On their way home Zahara and her raunchier girlfriend Paca (the great Javier Camara) run into a very drunk hunk who's falling over on his motorcycle. It's Enrique, the movie-in-the-movie's version, played by a different actor. The encounter reminds the destitute Zahara of their mutual troubled past. She shows up at their old school and tries to blackmail Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho) to pay for his past transgressions.

Enrique is drawn to this and everything else in Angel's script, including its memory of those beautiful, doomed school years. He even overlooks the depiction of him as a cheap trick, presumably because he knows good material when it lands on his desk. Angel, meanwhile, wants to play Zahara, but Enrique doesn't think he's woman enough. Angel pulls out the figurative casting couch and tries to change Enrique's mind.

Precious little in ''Bad Education" is what it appears to be. As the layers of deception are peeled away, the movie begins to defy a satisfying synopsis. (You try explaining a jigsaw puzzle!)

Then again, Almodovar doesn't make movies to summarize, he make movies to watch. That sounds self-explanatory, I know. But the stories here are inextricable from the sounds and images -- Albert Iglesias did the haunting music, Jose Luis Alcaine the luscious photography -- and most of the images defy easy description. When someone falls over dead into the keys of a typewriter, its metallic arms fly toward the screen in an operatic burst and then collapse back into place. ''Bad Education" is a movie so vividly constructed that its greatness lies just outside mere words, anyway.

It's tempting to think in the initial passages we see of ''The Visit" that what's unfolding is Enrique's vision of how his movie will go. But if you buy that he's a stand-in for Almodovar at the birth of his film career, then that's impossible. There's no way he'd be as incredible a filmmaker then as Almodovar is now.

This is the movie the director has been leading up to since he turned a corner in 1995 with ''The Flower of My Secret." The elements of his outlaw days that produced such early highs as ''What Have I Done to Deserve This" and ''Law of Desire" are still intact; the farcical volume of ''Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and ''High Heels" has been turned down; and the perfume and occasional preciousness of ''All About My Mother" and ''Talk to Her" has faded.

''Bad Education" is a marvelously dirty, ultimately heartbroken movie about, among other things, the instability of identities. After Ignacio's first sexual encounter with Father Manolo, the screen splits in two, dividing along the trickle of blood on the boy's forehead and warning us that, psychologically, he is irreparably broken.

Almodovar's own filmmaking identity has evolved dramatically through the years. His movies typically disguise themselves as lurid. But what's always made him a terrific artist and great entertainer is his gift for finding human sadness and great beauty in what on the surface looks trashy. He pulls this off without seeming tasteless, naive, or cheap.

The achievement of ''Bad Education" is its surprising emotional truth, which Almodovar introduces through innocent kids and complicates with exploitative adults. Young Ignacio and Enrique have what looks to be a perversely premature connection (how old are they again?), but it's the purest mutual love I've ever seen in an Almodovar film, however short-lived it is.

When their religion fails them (and therefore their schooling), they find a new church and a new classroom in the only place of worship and higher learning that matters to Almodovar: the movies.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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