He's come a long way, baby. Remember High Heels? Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!? Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? Beloved Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has built a reputation out of studying the solar system formed by the world of men and the world of women and the big bangs that happen when they collide. He still does. It's just that, back then, he put a lot more emphasis on the banging.

For the past decade, Almodóvar has been making films like a grownup. Which is not to say they're dull, stodgy or sexless. He has the same exuberance and frenzied sense of humor he's always had. But in films like 1995's The Flower of My Secret, 1997's Live Flesh and '99's All About My Mother, and particularly in 2002's Talk to Her, the director has learned to channel that exuberance into something more than pink-and-orange wallpaper, polka-dot lampshades and kitschy outfits. "Restraint" isn't quite the right word for it; maybe he's just growing up.

Almodóvar's latest, Bad Education, takes the whole maturity thing even further. That might sound unlikely, considering that the film's subject matter is the relationship between a mysterious junkie transvestite and a film director in creative crisis. But just as he spent the first part of his career making everyday subjects (boyfriends and girlfriends, revenge sex, kidnapping) as campy as all get-out, here he takes a subject that practically screams camp and purifies it of anything tawdry, leaving behind a rich, non-ironic, non-cheesy melodrama.

The film begins in the mid-'70s in the office of a filmmaker scouring the tabloids for story ideas. In strolls a hunky young actor (Gael García Bernal), who says he's the filmmaker's long-lost best friend (and first love) from boarding school. What's more, he's brought a story. Their story, as it turns out. It's called The Visit, and he wants his friend the filmmaker to put him in a starring role.

He leaves, the filmmaker (Fele Martínez) reads the script, and here begins a series of stories-within-the-story too painstakingly constructed to describe. No one in the film is quite what he seems. Layer upon layer of truth and fiction make it hard to know what's what and whom to believe. In fact, the layering starts even before the film does: Bad Education and The Visit are Almodóvar's stories, which he wrote based on his childhood years in Catholic boarding school in the '60s.

Giving away too much of the plot would ruin everything; let it suffice to say the story takes place in two separate decades, focusing on two young boys who were tormented by Catholic priests and how those various torments played out in each of them later. The writing and the performances are outstanding. Javier Cámara, who starred in Talk to Her, makes fabulous mincemeat of every frame he's in. Daniel Giménez Cacho and Francisco Maestre, both playing priests, manage to make their characters human as well as corrupt and predatory. Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros) is, as usual, the classic studly young actor, moustache and all--but when he puts on a wig and pink lipstick to play a drag queen, he's transformed into the quintessential Almodóvar heroine, tragically beautiful and somehow suspended between (or beyond) the usual notions of masculine and feminine.

Almodóvar loves toying with traditional ideas of male and female, and he does it here as well as he ever has, using an all-male cast (and a lot of lipstick). As the layers of fiction start to peel away from the truth, the notion of role-playing suddenly seems like more than a superficial game--it's the key to identity.

Bad Education
Rated NC-17

Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. Friday-Thursday, Jan. 14-20. Call for showtimes. $4-$7.