Under the opening credits of "Bad Education," Alberto Iglesias's roiling, Bernard Herrmann-like score prepares you for something darker, more Hitchcockian, than we have come to expect from Pedro Almodovar. An intricately constructed film noir about obsession, role-playing, revenge and shifting identities, it is obviously influenced by "Vertigo," yet "Bad Education" feels bracingly new. No one but Almodovar could have made it.

The movie's present tense is the 1980s. A 27-year-old film director, Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), is desperate for a new project when a young actor (Gael Garcia Bernal) comes into his office with a story he's written. He claims to be Ignacio, the boy Enrique loved 16 years earlier in a Roman Catholic boarding school. It's the story of their schoolboy affair: how they were separated when the pedophile priest, Father Manolo, banished Ignacio from school in a fit of jealousy. And then it tells of what happened to Ignacio: how he became the transvestite performer Zahara (also played by Bernal), determined to get revenge on Father Manolo. Is this all true? And is Ignacio really Ignacio? What Enrique does know is that this must be his next film.

"Bad Education" keeps pulling the rug out from under Enrique, and the audience. Like a Chinese box, it has layers under layers, fictions within fictions. A mystery and an intricate triangular love story, it's also a tale about storytelling itself, the uses of art and artifice to make the unbearable bearable. But the less you know of the plot the better.

Almodovar is famous for his great women's roles. But here, for the first time, there are no significant women's parts--though there's Bernal in drag, which is almost as good. The all-male atmosphere brings with it a cooler tone: the grand passions on display burn with a cold fire. Bernal, playing what amounts to three different roles, is mesmerizing. It's typical of Almodovar that even the child molester, Father Manolo, is granted a complex humanity. Martinez has the Jimmy Stewart role--Enrique is the obsessed, besotted one, hunting after the truth--but I wish a more expressive actor had played the part; Martinez's sleek, taut face conceals more than it reveals. My only other quibble is with the ending, which feels abrupt: it's like a splash of cold water waking us from a dream we don't want to end.

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