The day I saw Pedro Almodovar's most recent film, Bad Education, a priest in Massachusetts was convicted of raping an altar boy some 20 years ago. The victim of this abuse, who is now a firefighter, wept when he heard the news and said something to the effect that he hoped the old priest died in prison - of natural causes, or otherwise. The trusted elder - priest, teacher, coach - turned sexual predator has become a numbingly familiar part of our contemporary landscape. The nature of their betrayal is deep, complicated and long-lasting. It also spawns confusion. Those of us on the outside of these situations might think that what's happened is about sexuality. But the root of sexual abuse is a clutch for power.

Bad Education is an unsparing meditation on the bitter circles of victimization bred by a protracted case of sexual abuse. The ways in which the victims attempt to redress their various grievances propels the dark heart of this story.

Over the course of his career, Pedro Almodovar has established himself as one of the few directors alive whose work consistently provokes. Sex is usually the spark that lights these provocations, which find form in the imagery and illusions inspired by the movies' empire of imagination. Bad Education fits this profile.

In this case, we have a story within a story within a story, all of which begin when a priest at a Catholic school, Father Manolo, begins sexually exploiting Enrique, a boy in his charge. Enrique grows up to be a transvestite nightclub performer (ravenously played by The Motorcycle Diaries' Gael Garcia Bernal) - and a writer, who pens the story of how Father Manolo abused him. The story finds its way into the hands of Enrique's schoolmate and former lover, Ignacio, who is now a renegade film director. Ignacio decides to bring his friend's story to the screen. This process becomes a journey of discovery involving hidden identities and murder.

If, for Almodovar, sex is where humans show their wild side, those parts of ourselves that are ultimately ungovernable, art and, in particular, cinema is where we are able to get a grip. Committing Enrique's story to film is a way of taking back the power that Father Manolo stole.

Almodovar opens Bad Education with a credit sequence that recalls the Hitchcock of Rear Window and Vertigo. In doing so he strikes a chord that promises to leaven darkness with wit. This is a game Almodovar has proven himself brilliantly capable of playing in the past. But here he seems overwhelmed by the concentric circles of his story. Bogged by exposition, the revelations lack kick. Almodovar seems unable to get beyond or ignore the moral gravity of the situation he has created. There is no escaping the sadness in these characters whose trajectory, for all its many layers, describes nothing so much as a desperate, downward spiral.

I know next to nothing about Almodovar's life, but at times Bad Education seems burdened by unresolved autobiography. The film over-reaches in an effort to explain its characters and provide an air of resolution. What starts as suspenseful narrative sleight of hand is finally staggered by a real need to accuse. The director seems less in control of his materials than driven by them.

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