Grand Illusion

Almodovar's latest sums up his own Bad Education.

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click to enlarge NAME GAME: Gael Garcia Bernal as Angel, or Juan, - or - is it Zahara? - DIEGO LOPEZ CALVIN
NAME GAME: Gael Garcia Bernal as Angel, or Juan, or is it Zahara?

Nothing is quite what it seems in Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, an intricately convoluted noir fantasy that tackles so many Big Ideas it's a wonder the film doesn't collapse under its own weight.

Almodovar's weirdly sexy and way mysterious movie is so good, though, that it feels practically weightless. Bad Education is undeniably dark, dense, maybe even dangerous stuff, but the film candy-coats its Big Ideas in the outrageous kink of Almodovar's earliest movies as well as the eloquent symmetries of his more recent melodramas, presenting its story-within-a-story as a sort of greatest hits package from this remarkable Spanish director. You might even think of this as Almodovar's 8 1/2, a personal and professional summing-up that, like Fellini's magnum opus, neatly re-states all of the director's pet passions through a labyrinthine fusion of life and art, fantasy and reality.

The movie begins simply enough, with an Almodovar-like filmmaker being approached by a long-lost friend (and childhood lover) who's written a story he hopes will become the inspiration for the director's new movie. From there, Bad Education spirals out in multiple directions as we watch the friend's story - an autobiographical account of school days filled with forbidden passion and abusive priests - mutate into a many-headed hydra as it passes through the memories of the film's various narrators.

The tale that's spun becomes a sordid but surprisingly poignant web of intrigue, revenge, sex, drugs, love and betrayal, and each time the story unfolds, another angle is presented, revealing new information that calls into question everything that's come before. Several of the characters might not even be who they claim to be (or, for that matter, what we imagine them to be), beginning with the filmmaker's long-lost love (Gael Garcia Bernal), who, depending on who we're listening to, could be a handsome, aspiring actor, or a streetwise transvestite or a ravaged, pathetic junkie, or something else entirely.

Almodovar has always been interested in illusions, in people pretending to be something they're not (most magnificently, the men pretending to be women in All About My Mother), and Bad Education looks a lot like the filmmaker's final word on the subject. It's no coincidence that the movie's opening credits are composed of split screen graphics that hint of the fractures and schisms to come, or that the music owes more than a little to Bernard Hermann's score for Vertigo, Hitchcock's unbeatable ode to romantic illusion.

Much like Jimmy Stewart remaking Kim Novak in the image of his dead dream-girl, Almodovar's meta-movie teases us with Big Ideas about those of us who love our fantasies so much that we turn them into our realities. That list begins and ends with Almodovar himself, of course, who turns his dream of cinema inside out in Bad Education, while mining the cross-fertilizing relationship between life and art for maximum pleasure.

Noshing at a Buffet of Jewish Cinema
The Ninth Annual Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival rolls into town from Feb. 16 to 21, with a brand new batch of movies focusing on aspects of the Jewish experience from all over the world. Films from Argentina, America, Italy, England, Czech Republic and, of course, Israel will be presented, and most of them are regional premieres.

The fest kicks off Wednesday, Feb. 16, with films screening at two different locations. Old Hyde Park's Sunrise Cinemas will host a 7:30 p.m. showing of the Italian drama Perlasca, the true account of an Italian Schindler who rescued many European Jews during World War II. Meanwhile, at Muvico Baywalk, a pair of Argentinean films will be shown: the delightfully frenetic slice of shopping-mall-life Lost Embrace (7 p.m.), which won the prestigious Silver Bear award at last year's Berlin Film Festival, and Seven Days in Once (8:45 p.m.), a colorful documentary about the vibrant Jewish neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

On Thursday, Feb. 17, the Argentinean program at Muvico Baywalk repeats, while over at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus, the documentary Imaginary Witness (7:30 p.m.) explores the complicated history of America's and Hollywood's responses to the Holocaust. After the traditional break for the Jewish Sabbath on Friday, the festival resumes on Saturday, Feb. 19, at Sunrise Cinema with the amusingly broad British comedy Suzy Gold (7:15 p.m.) and Turn Left at the End of the World (9:15 p.m.), a culture-clash charmer about Jewish immigrants from Morocco and India living together in an isolated Israeli village.

The action moves back to Baywalk on Sunday, Feb. 20, with a double feature beginning with a 2 p.m. matinee of Watermarks, a documentary on the legendary Jewish women's swim team that dominated Austrian sports in the '30s. At 4 p.m., you can catch the Czech curiosity Divided We Fall, a droll, deadpan dramedy that feels something like what Jim Jarmusch might have done with material about a gentile couple hiding Jews from Nazi eyes.

The festival winds down on Monday, Feb. 21, with two more Israeli films, both screening at USF's Jewish Student Union. At 7:30 p.m there's No. 17, a filmic attempt to piece together the puzzle of the unidentified victim of a suicide bomber, followed at 8:30 p.m. by Broken Wings, a finely detailed drama about a more-or-less ordinary, middle-class Israeli family shattered by personal tragedy.

Broken Wings is essentially a record of the ways in which the various characters (working mom, cynical teenaged son, wannabe-rock-star sister) express and repress their confusion, anger and grief, eventually becoming an account of their nascent attempts at reconnecting with the world. The Israel depicted in the film could be almost anywhere, just another outpost of global McCulture, complete with bong-huffing kids in backwards baseball caps and Sid Vicious T-shirts. It's all refreshingly free of political messages of any sort.

Tickets to the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival are available through the Tampa JCC (813-264-9000), Hillel Jewish Student Union at USF and the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center (727-736-1494). For ticket form downloads, directions or complete film schedules, visit the JCC website at or contact Cathy Gardner at 813-264-9000 or [email protected]

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