Bad Education (15)

Directed and Written by Pedro Almodóvar
Showing at FACT until June 4th

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

After a warm reception on the domestic market in Spain and strong buzz from Cannes, Almodóvar’s latest film opens in arthouse cinemas across Britain: bearing all his stylistic and thematic trademarks, the picture feels rather detached and too preoccupied with its elaborate plot which may disappoint viewers who relished All About My Mother and Talk To Her. Held together by Gael Garcia Bernal’s extraordinary performance, and underscored by a superb soundtrack, this sumptuously shot thriller-melodrama should nonetheless appeal to Almodóvar aficionados and general audiences alike.

Bad Education (La Mala Educacion) begins in Madrid in 1980, with young film director Enrique Godad going through a creative crisis, struggling to come up with an idea for his next film. A young man turns up at his office and introduces himself as former schoolmate Ignacio Rodriguez. Ignacio, who has taken the pseudonym Ángel Andrade, talks Enrique into reading his short story “The Visit”, which is partially based on their lives at a Catholic boarding school in the early Sixties.
In the story, transvestite singer Zahara (whose real name is Ignacio) has a one-night stand with a man called Enrique and discovers afterwards that he was a fellow student she was in love with as a boy. She returns to her old school posing as Ignacio’s sister and demands a million pesetas from a priest, Father Manolo, in exchange for her promise not to publish the story detailing Manolo’s abuse of Ignacio. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is not the only version of events but that the story is being re-told from various viewpoints, with repeated shifts between different periods of time.

Due to its confrontation of the delicate issue of secret child abuse in the Catholic Church during the years of the Franco regime, the film predictably caused a stir in the run-up to its release in Spain, yet Bad Education successfully puts these concerns to rest: true to form, Almodóvar tackles a highly controversial subject and shows appropriate restraint in merely suggesting or cutting away from the abuse rather than presenting it in an explicit and exploitative manner. The film refuses, characteristically for the director, to outright condemn any of its characters, and chooses instead to portray the perpetrator Manolo/Berenguer as a pitiful man who cuts a tragic figure as Jùan leaves him behind in the torrential rain. This underlines Almodóvar’s profound humanism even if the director’s capacity to extend his compassion to men like Berenguer almost yields uncomfortable results here. Yet the psychological effects of the abuse on the real Ignacio are brought to the fore in poignant flashback scenes portraying the abused as an increasingly fragile drug addict with a strong desire to irrevocably transform his body and identity through plastic surgery. As another variation on the director’s signature themes of love, passion, bi-, trans-, and homosexuality and change of identity, Bad Education is quite possibly Almodóvar’s most intricate work yet: continually he moves back and forth between flashbacks and the film’s present and between fiction and reality, establishing parallels between the various storylines which function as a reflection or variation on what has gone on before. Characters, too, are not what they seem and often have several identities within each layer of the narrative which complicates matters further. The film’s complex interweaving of multiple plot strands and identities is exhilarating and keeps the momentum going at high pace, but as the film progresses, there is also a growing sense of detachment, a feeling of Almodóvar exerting too much control over his material and being almost too enamoured with its complexity. Consequently it is not at once so impressively affecting and intricate as All About My Mother and Talk To Her: in comparison, the new film feels slightly imbalanced and mechanical. One would also liked to have seen more of such potentially interesting characters like Martin and Paca/Paquito who quickly disappear from the film. Still, Bad Education comes strongly recommended: the ease with which Gael Garcia Bernal inhabits a variety of characters is simply astonishing and bolsters the Mexican’s reputation as one of the world’s most exciting young talents. Fele Martinez gives a good if somewhat detached performance as Enrique while Lluis Homer in the part of Berenguer invites both repulsion and sympathy. Javier Cámara, last seen in Talk To Her, provides the little comic relief that is there in the picture in a funny supporting turn as the fictitious character Paca/Paquito. As expected, Bad Education looks and sounds fantastic: José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography, the art direction by Antxón Gómez and the costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier all contribute to the film’s rich visual style while Alberto Iglesias supplies an evocative soundtrack that rates as the year’s best to date. Not quite matching Almodóvar’s very best works, Bad Education nevertheless is an admirable, strong film from Spain’s provocative auteur.