In his quarter-century career as Spain's most celebrated cinematic son, the arch-prankster Pedro Almodovar has conjured a body of work notable for its deft juggling of the unacceptable and the irresistible. To drop his name in the 1980s was to evoke visions of garish psychosexual fantasies, highly orchestrated wet dreams drenched in a cocktail of calculated shock and killer kitsch. His early films, from Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otras Chicas del Monton to Matador and IAtame! (aka Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), revelled in a unique brand of camp grotesquerie that seemed designed to divide international audiences between delight and outrage.
Later, in the wake of the 1991 hit High Heels, Almodovar seemed to exhibit a more mellow maturity, The Flower of My Secret (1995) and All About My Mother (1999) suggesting that the former enfant terrible had grown up and calmed down. Yet he remains capable of overstepping the line of decency, though nowadays he serves up his transgressions in such deliciously palatable packages that even his most outre offences seem both commonplace and acceptable.
On the surface, Bad Education, which provided an early boost for this year's Cannes Film Festival, is an impenetrable nightmare: a triple-time-schemed examination of the legacy of ecclesiastical child abuse spanning three decades of Spanish history, from dictatorship to cultural revolution. Within the puzzles of its interlocking plots - variously presented as letters, memories and film scripts - we find the edgy and uncomfortable spectres of traumatised children, betrayed families, warring lovers and alarmingly tragic paedophiles.
Yet, even as the mind reels and the conscience bridles at the labyrinthine twists and turns of Almodovar's latest obsession (of which the director has said, "I had to get it out of my system"), we are not downtrodden but uplifted by its sheer cinematic chutzpah. Rarely has a film boasted such miserable potential, but delivered such bizarrely magical results.
Emblematic of Bad Education's contradictory charm is Gael GarcIa Bernal, the film's leading man and brooding star of Alejandro Inarritu's Amores Perros (as well as the forthcoming Che Guevara biopic Motorcycle Diaries), whose manly appeal is here turned to more twisted feminine ends. Pictured in luscious hues as the pouting drag queen Zahara, the chameleon-like actor slips effortlessly between the upfront, in-your-face performance of this brash female impersonator and the menacingly veiled contrivances of a split male role that enigmatically encompasses both victim and victimiser. Is "Angel", as he claims, actually Ignacio RodrIguez, former childhood sweetheart of the now celebrated film-maker Enrique Goded, whose talents will help turn him into a star? Or is he in fact Juan, jealous brother of a washed-up junkie, ready to screw even a blackmailed abuser for his own unscrupulous ends? The answer, which unravels as the film circles back and forth across time, is both - and neither.
The intrigue generated by Bad Education's spiralling plot has been intensified by the autobiographical details that critics have identified and eagerly picked apart. The story that Angel brings to Enrique, recounting their own youthful love affair in the shadow of priestly interference, is called "The Visit", the title of an early, unpublished work by Almodovar. Similarly, the date of Angel's career breakthrough as a film scriptwriter and star coincides with the release of Almodovar's first feature film, in 1980.
And yet, to read significance into any of the references is surely to miss the point of a film that constantly teaches us to trust neither the teller nor the tale. An important scene, played out by an actor on the set of the movie-within-the-movie, is promptly questioned by a mysterious interloper, who challenges not only the on-screen actions of the character, but also the off-screen identity of the actor. In such a world, where neither names nor even gender seem certain, no one is who they claim to be, and no single story is inherently "truer" than any other.
It is a credit to Almodovar that he infuses this complex (not to mention controversial) conceit with such an accessible sense of fun. At one particularly audacious moment, a pair of miscreants, fresh from an abominable act, take refuge in a picture house showing - wait for it - a season of film noir classics. Flanked by posters for Double Indemnity and La Bete Humaine, and apparently pursued by the irate god of dramatic irony, our subjects flee the cinema, declaring that "all those movies . . . they seem to be talking about us". It's a delightful moment: cheeky in its contrivance; ludicrous in its overstatement; and yet, like the whole of Bad Education, strangely arresting and affecting in its dark, self-referential melodrama.