La mala educación (2004)

BAD EDUCATION (aka: La Mala Educación)

(director/writer: Pedro Almodóvar; cinematographer: Jose Luis Alcaine; editor: José Salcedo; music: Alberto Iglesias; cast: Gael García Bernal (Angel/Juan/Zahara), Fele Martínez (Enrique Goded), Javier Cámara (Paquito), Daniel Giménez-Cacho (Father Manolo), Lluis Homar (Mr. Berenguer), Francisco Boira (Ignacio Rodriguez), Francisco Maestre (Father José), Juan Fernández (Martín), Ignacio Pérez (Ignacio as a child), Raúl García Forneiro (Enrique as a child), Alberto Ferreiro (Enrique Serrano), Petra Martínez (Ignacio’s mother), Sandra (Nancy Doll), Javier Camára (Paca), Leonor Watling (Mónica), Sara Montiel (Herself); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NC-17; producer: Agustin Almodóvar; Sony Pictures Classics; 2004-Spain-in Spanish with English subtitles)

“It’s stylish, campy, gay, and signature Almodóvar.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The irrepressible enfant terrible filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (“Talk to Her”/”All About My Mother”/”Live Flesh”) does his usual gender switching thing and has his usual dose of eccentric characters, drugs, transsexuals, smart-assed wit, ongoing critique of the Catholic Church, plot twists, forbidden subjects, and as expected a romantically cynical love story as part of his mise-en-scène. It’s an ambitious story (one of his more ambitious works) that questions identity, ambition, desire, love, and power. It almost seamlessly moves through three time periods starting in 1980 when struggling actor Juan (Gael García Bernal) poses as his older brother Ignacio Rodriguez to meet successful underground filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), Ignacio’s schoolboy lover and first love, in order to lay on him his film script (“The Visit”) about those painful schooldays; backsliding to the repressive 1964 period when the 10-year-old Ignacio and Enrique found love together in a Catholic school and the literature teacher-principal Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho) expelled Enrique so he can have Ignacio all to himself; and then to the more liberating late 1970s, where Ignacio is a mean-spirited transvestite junkie who wrote a damning book about his schooldays and is blackmailing Father Manolo to pay for his past abuse. It returns to the present to show the film being shot with Juan now called Angel playing the part of cross-dresser hustler Zahara. The film-within-the-film sequence leads to the reappearance of Manolo as no longer a priest but a married family man called Berenguer, who is a literary editor for a publishing firm and is determined to tell career-minded Enrique the truth about how the real Ignacio was murdered in 1976. The wrap up to the murder and love story is done in a twisty way that was hardly pleasing, leaving me short on caring about the unappealing zany characters featured but much impressed with how the complex structure was so finely worked out.

What Almodóvar adds to his usual offbeat sexual farce melodrama is a debased film noir narrative that blends together the rigid world of the 1960s Catholic school with the more jaded open-minded world of the 1980s movie industry. The hectic narrative spins a murder and blackmail story, a film-within-the-film sequence, and has the talented Gael Garcia Bernal in a triple role (diminishing the roles of all the other actors). The young Mexican actor handles the parts with the accent required of a true Spaniard and the manic energy that is requisite for his active journey to seemingly nowhere. It’s a messy film and not endearing enough to make the characters compelling figures, but it’s stylish, campy, gay, and signature Almodóvar. That alone should be enough for Almodóvar’s fan base but, perhaps, not enough for others caught adrift in such a serpentine yarn. Almodóvar’s favorite cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine deliciously handles the glossy photography, whose pleasingly bright hues help take our minds off the bleak noir tale and autobiographical cock teasing part of the film.

Bad Education is one of Almodóvar’s more gloomy films, while at the same time making much too light of its plot theme about childhood pedophilia. The controversial filmmaker reaches for so much but grabs onto so little to say that isn’t enigmatic. The past is viewed as being corrupted by the Franco regime and by the predatory priest in charge of the Catholic schoolboy’s education, but the filmmaker doesn’t seem passionate about telling either scenario. The joys are seen in a few quirky scenes: for one the outrageous shot of the pubescent schoolboys sitting together in the local cinema and jerking each other off while watching legendary Spanish sex goddess Sara Montiel, the singer/actress, in That Woman. The overall result is a delirious and unsatisfying film about betrayal and abuse of power that is well-crafted but stumbles over the same minefields other noted noir filmmakers have also stumbled over when they failed to make their main characters into someone the viewer cares about in a way that isn’t similar to tabloid exploitation.