Crimes of Passion 

The masterful Bad Education and Vera Drake.

As I try to describe Bad Education, the latest import from Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar, the only other film I can think of that approximates its twists and turns is the 2001 version of Ocean's Eleven -- a film no canny reviewer would cite as comparison. And yet the masterful Ocean's Eleven tells a very compelling and tantalizing story before turning sharply on itself, taking the viewer along at every step. It fools the viewer (as well as some of its own characters) by not being quite what it seems, and yet it somehow makes viewers feel smart and cool by including them in the spoils of self-congratulation when the key scheme goes well for the heisters.

Bad Education takes twists and turns too, fools itself and the audience, and while the proceedings are satisfying indeed, viewers are left with a dark, icky feeling that is the opposite of what Danny Ocean's gang elicits. Both films present an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, baked in a puzzle, and sprinkled with sex. Steven Soderbergh's Ocean is light and tangy, while Almodóvar's Education is rich and sinful. Comparisons between the two vastly unrelated movies end there, except that both are hot and sexy in their own right.

Enrique (Fele Martinez) is, like Almodóvar, a successful directorial auteur. Lately, after a string of hits, he has "auteur's block" (my expression, not his) and sits in his office cutting out extraordinary tabloid stories in the hopes that a good story will leap out at him. One does but it's not from a tabloid. It is Ignacio (played by newly minted international heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal).

Enrique and Ignacio were childhood friends and were, in fact, as in love with each other as two young boys can be before puberty sets in. Long ago, Ignacio sacrificed his virtue to a lusty priest when the two boys were caught in a compromising position in exchange for Enrique not being punished. The crafty priest molested Ignacio and expelled Enrique anyway. Sixteen years later, when Ignacio walks through Enrique's office door, a flood of old feelings and images and thoughts rushes back. There is a short story that Ignacio has written about the two that Ignacio thinks should be a film -- with him in the lead as the vengeful transvestite Zahara. To Enrique's surprise, he is as entranced by Ignacio now as he was as a youth, and he wants very much to make this movie and get to know his old love again. But there's something not quite right about Ignacio. Why does he want to play Zahara so badly? Who is Zahara anyway? What is he hiding? And to what length will he go to play her? I will answer only this last question: a lot.

The remainder of the plot is the unraveling of the film's ingredients and the reappearance of its unseen players. We see the short story, titled "The Visit," as acted out by Ignacio and then as a film by Enrique's team of professional actors. Further still, the events are unfolded by their real-life participants. As Enrique is drawn further in by Ignacio -- artistically and sexually -- he is more and more disturbed by what has become of his old friend. The revelation of a mysterious younger brother complicates matters, as does the appearance of a character from "The Visit." Is it the abusive priest? Zahara? Or is it Ignacio himself?

Pedro Almodóvar is the artiste who brought us Antonio Banderas in a number of sexually charged melodramas beginning with 1982's Labyrinth of Passion. This new film, one of Almodóvar's most mischievous, is itself a labyrinth of passion. There is one way in and one way out, but the pleasures and treacheries in between are multitudinous and intertwined. The sex is hot but so infused with guilt and suspicion that it cannot be wholeheartedly enjoyed. There is revenge, but its targets are so pitiable that it too is difficult to relish. The story ends, but for the viewer there is no closure. Sex = pleasure = guilt = deceit = guilt = pleasure. Very Catholic, and yet, very satisfying. Almodóvar's juggling of these elements is masterful.

Bernal, already a rising star with Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También, certainly delivers the goods in a manner that will solidify his position as one of the most exciting actors of his generation. The range of his portrayal as Ignacio (and, at times, Zahara) is what will make the film world -- always hot in the pursuit of the next Marlon Brando or James Dean -- take notice. -- Bo List

Set amid the working-class neighborhoods of dreary post-WWII London, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, about a domestic worker who moonlights as an abortionist and is arrested and tried for her alleged crimes, is ostensibly one big downer of a movie. And yet both my wife and I walked away from it in a giddy mood, energized by the stew of images and ideas we'd just witnessed.

Vera Drake is a film of extreme virtuosity, yet it's a virtuosity that never once calls undue attention to itself. Its effects and flourishes are subtle and inseparable from the story Leigh and his company of actors and technicians are telling. Vera Drake is so subtle and so modest in its brilliance, in fact, that it's the rare great film that I recommend with some hesitation, because I can easily imagine reasonable, intelligent people seeing it and returning my ardor with a shrug.

This sense is most apparent in an opening stretch some viewers might rightly consider dull. In his measured, almost mundane depiction of the daily rhythms of Drake's life, Leigh is asking for a good deal of patience -- and attention -- from his audience. Those well-versed in Leigh's other films -- Topsy-Turvy, Secrets & Lies, and Naked, most notably --will know that they're in the sure hands of a meticulous craftsman and are likely to follow Leigh through to a payoff that rewards their dedication 10 times over. But those unfamiliar with Leigh's work might start to get a little antsy as they watch Drake (Imelda Staunton), a proud little lady in shabby sensible shoes and a drab olive coat, go through her day-to-day rituals: polishing the furniture at the extravagant homes she works in, tending to her bedridden mother, helping out neighbors, and taking care of her family, a mechanic husband, tailor son, and sheepish factory-worker daughter.

Drake tackles these mundane tasks with a cheerful diligence that can only be described as pluck, and it's ingenious how Leigh casually slips yet another activity -- secretly helping women get rid of their pregnancies -- into this depiction of daily ritual.

Leigh is equally casual about the potentially volatile content of Drake's services (for which she asks no payment), the way the array of women Drake serves present a panorama of the kind of women -- i.e., every woman -- who might need her services and the range of emotions (anxiety, desperation, nonchalance, regret) they might have about their decisions.

Like so many of Leigh's films, which tend to be solid, actorly, and traditional, Vera Drake has the depth and straightforward storytelling principles of a thick 19th-century novel, yet this scope is conveyed with flawless cinematic pacing. Patient scenes of lingering mid-range shots and painstakingly gradual zooms alternate with quick static shots framed like an old master; the film's final shot is silent, lasts only a couple of second, and says volumes about the familial pain that Drake's predicament causes.

But just because Leigh seems to be an old-fashioned storyteller, that doesn't mean he doesn't vary from conventional narratives in rewarding ways. Structural play in commercial movies, whether twisted chronologies or twist endings, have become so common as to be gimmicky. When Leigh varies from straight-line plotting, he has a reason and rarely calls attention to his strategies.

For instance, Vera Drake at first seems to contain two separate but equal plot lines set on a collision course, only to have them end up being parallel and for the second strand to disappear halfway through the film. But Leigh isn't losing track of a plot strand here. The seemingly aborted story line informs everything else that happens in the film and pops back up in a devastatingly understated way near the end of the film.

Leigh earns the best director Oscar he was nominated for and won't get, just as Staunton earns the best actress nod she has an actual shot at: An endless, silent close-up when the police show up at Drake's door, interrupting a family celebration, is perhaps the finest movie acting to be seen over the past year.

But Staunton is far from alone here. Leigh's trademark production method, in which characters are developed and a script is written through months-long workshops with his actors, typically results in a richness among supporting players (and supporting performances) unrivaled in contemporary cinema.

Leigh made this element of his films explicit with his brave ending for the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, where he turned the film over to seemingly minor supporting players for a trio of graceful concluding scenes. But Vera Drake is similarly a film where one senses that any supporting character (and the actor who plays him or her) could step up to carry a movie of his or her own.

Leigh can be prickly, as Career Girls and, especially, Naked attest. But here these supporting parts tend to bring a generosity to the film that balances out the darkness of its central story. Not every character takes the high road, but many do, under trying circumstances and in situations where the viewer truly feels that things can go any which way. This results in some unforgettable moments: The first hesitant then radiant smile of daughter Ethel (Alex Kelly) as she and suitor Reg (Eddie Marsan) announce their engagement is a small moment that can crack your heart wide open. Similar are a couple of matter-of-fact moments from Reg, the first a simple little speech about his own mother's difficulty raising six children, the other a modest Christmas toast under the toughest of circumstances.

There may not be another working filmmaker who makes such ostensibly conventional films of such consistent quality as Leigh, and Vera Drake may well be his finest film. This outwardly bleak drama probably doesn't fit the typical filmgoer's notion of entertaining, but there are more elevated "e" words it inspires: engrossing, edifying, enthralling. n --C

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