(2004)4.5Josh RalskeIt seems that with each passing film, Pedro Almodóvar's palette gets a little darker. Bad Education is his most somber film to date (with the possible exception of Live Flesh), a brooding drama about past demons returning to the present, about lost love, lost faith, and mistaken identity, all haunted by the strains of "Moon River" and an ancient image of legendary Spanish singer-actress Sara Montiel. The film is filled with allusions to the past, to the repression and corruption of fascist Spain and a Catholic boarding school (like the one Almodóvar attended), but also to a cinematic past that is clearly just as crucial to the world view of Almodóvar and his tormented cast of characters. While Bad Education owes a tremendous debt to classic film noir, it's also an unquestionably personal work, beyond the simple fact that it's about a filmmaker, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) grappling with his influences, and with fiction's ultimate usefulness (and inadequacy) in dredging up the truths of the past. Almodóvar has always excelled at writing strong female characters, but he seems to be growing less interested in that kind of projection, as in his last film, Talk to Her, they were all comatose, and in this one they're nonexistent, unless you count the film's cross-dressing "femme fatale," seductively played by Gael García Bernal, and his uproarious sidekick, Paca (Javier Cámara). Almodóvar is an increasingly precise filmmaker, in terms of both image and sound, and this film, while rich and intricate, sacrifices some of the joyful spontaneity of his earlier work. It feels just a bit airless.