Bad Education Review
I’m at something of a loss to describe Bad Education. Pedro Almodovar has crafted a slippery and complex film that revels in the art of filmmaking, the eroticism of fantasy and the deceptive power of role-play. As you might imagine, simplicity isn’t much of a concern for Spain’s critically revered auteur and Bad Education proves to be one of his most attention-demanding efforts, whilst equally affirming his already stable position as that rare creature in current cinema: a director whose consistency matches his quality.
Although the general consensus among critical circles was that Talk to Her represented a creative and emotional zenith for Almodovar, it has always struck me as the weakest of the six films of his that I’ve seen and its failings, I suspected, were attributable to its focus upon men rather than women. Almodovar’s cinematic oeuvre is famed for being comprised of films where it is the women who take centre stage (and usually use it as an opportunity to indulge in a hysterical catharsis after having been abandoned by a callous boyfriend) but in Talk to Her the two female protagonists were comatose and the equilibrium between pathos and humour that permeates the best of Almodovar’s films seemed strangely imbalanced; the film’s two women remained absent for the majority of the movie’s duration and the men only managed to sustain erratic levels of my interest in their ongoing woes. Perhaps it’s simply because women are more novel in how they cope with suffering whilst men fall into conventional patterns of reaction, either way I feared that Bad Education’s practically all male cast would prove an ill-conceived idea.
Pleasingly, I was mistaken: Bad Education isn’t Almodovar’s best (see the sublime All about my Mother for that) but it is an improvement after the slight misstep of Talk to Her. It’s 1980; Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is an up and coming gay director who despite previous successes in creating innovative cinema is finding the search for inspiration for his next project a particularly arduous one. Help comes when into his office swaggers Ignacio (Gael García Bernal in a quite remarkable performance), an old friend he hasn’t seen since childhood. Ignacio – who has now adopted the moniker of ‘Angel’ because he thinks it’s better suited to his profession as an actor – hands Enrique a semi-autobiographical story that details their time spent in a Catholic school, the venue in which Ignacio experienced two very different relationships, neither of which he has been able to exorcise from memory. The first was a tender love affair with Enrique, whilst the second was with one of the school’s priests Fr. Manolo, who habitually molested Ignacio and expelled Enrique upon discovering the feelings the boys had for each other.
To describe more of the plot would be both unfair to a potential viewer and also something of a futile endeavour since the plot (as Roger Ebert analogised it) is the cinema equivalent of quicksand and to unravel its seemingly limitless layers in this review would be both doing you a disservice and nigh on impossible. There are stories within stories, identities switch, hell; even genders are anything but a certainty – hence Gael García Bernal’s rather fetching performance as the transsexual Zahara – and everything is atmospherically draped in a strange amalgamation of noir and Almodovar that is simultaneously perverse and yet fascinatingly enigmatic. The acting is strong, though whilst Bernal is dazzling credit must be given to Martínez for his less showy performance as Enrique, a restrained counterpoint to the flamboyance of the other characters; especially the hilariously bitchy Javier Cámara, an actor whose seedy performances in Talk to Her and Sex and Lucia repulsed me but was so gloriously funny here as petulant transvestite Pacquito that his few scenes were little treasures in their own right.
Perhaps Almodovar wishes to invite suggestions that Bad Education has elements of covert autobiography: are the parallels between him and Enrique entirely coincidental? Both are openly homosexual film directors who in 1980 – after some underground successes – are poised for a breakthrough (Almodovar made it with his exploitative schlock extravaganza Pepi, Luci, Bom) and some critics have even mused that there may even be traces of similarity between Almodovar and Ignacio’s upbringings under the severe watch of Catholicism. In a way I think this ambiguity ties into the core of what one infers about Bad Education’s subtext: the mystery of ourselves as individuals and the manner in which we blur fantasy and reality (with cinema, lies or self-delusion) to alleviate the struggles we are faced with and the awkward question of whether we can truly ‘know’ someone beyond their superficial details.
Note: As an afterthought I just thought I’d skirt off onto a somewhat political tangent (i.e. if you don’t want to hear a diatribe against prudish Americans and the MPAA, please skip this paragraph). I was bewildered to learn that Bad Education had had the rare ‘honour’ of being awarded an NC-17 certificate in the USA, regularly referred to by the industry as ‘the commercial kiss of death’ since it’s effectively the equivalent of an X certificate and precludes the possibility of anyone beneath the age of 17 seeing the movie. True, this movie contains a lot of sex (next to nothing is shown, but much is implied) and is more risqué than Almodovar’s comparatively chaste films All About My Mother and Talk to Her, but such puritanical censorship was far from warranted since the paedophilic sub-plot that supposedly incurred the certification is handled with more sensitivity, discretion and intelligence than Sleepers, which evaded such brutal certification because it was a mainstream Hollywood cash cow (though it flopped at the box office in the end anyway). Since literally no scenes of molestation are depicted I’m perplexed as to why the MPAA saw fit to kick up a fuss that was as unnecessary as it was illogical: since this is a foreign movie with subtitles the demographic they presumably feared would be irreparably traumatised by it (wide-eyed, innocently impressionable teenagers) would avoid it like the plague anyway.
A distinct case of ‘could be better, could be worse’: I doubt that those who merely want to see the film will be disappointed by the disc.
Picture: The 2.35:1 transfer is anamorphic, lushly detailed and only slightly marred by burnt in subtitles (I don’t find them utterly abhorrent, but I prefer it when they’re player generated and have consequently deducted a mark from its overall score). Since this Almodovar's most recent work it’s hardly surprising, but this is the best looking transfer a film of his has received on these shores.
Note: At various points during the film (the ‘story within a story’ segments’) the sides of the screen are letter-boxed (see below capture). This isn’t a technical flaw; it’s merely a directorial quirk of Almodovar that was also present in the theatrical release.
Sound: The Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is solid and quite pleasing to the ears though since this is predominantly a film concerned with dialogue there’s little opportunity for the soundtrack to truly shine.
Making of Montage – One minute of behind the scenes footage with a music only soundtrack and a plethora of shots of Almodovar grinning wildly.
Deleted Scenes – The most interesting extra on the disc: two 2 ½ minute deleted scenes that are actually worth viewing solely for the pleasure of Javier Cámara being thoroughly entertaining (albeit an absolute caricature) as Pacquito.
Trailers – Could you ask for more in this regard? There’s a teaser Trailer, theatrical trailer, UK and Spanish TV spots along with some trailers for other Almodovar films released by Pathé.
Galleries – Surprisingly detailed, encompassing both on-set snaps taken by Almodovar to costume designs by Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Press Booklet – Accessible via a DVD-Rom drive this 21 page press booklet contains some genuinely interesting insights from Almodovar, who denies that the picture is autobiographical, but notes the similarities between Bad Education and his earlier film Law of Desire and concedes that a couple schoolmates were involved in a scenario similar to that between Fr. Manolo and Ignacio.
Much as it pains me to admit it, 2004 was something of a fallow year for films, with Bad Education being amongst the few merciful exceptions. For those who’ve never seen an Almodovar flick I’d caution against using this as your starting point, since his idiosyncratic humour, individualistic visual style and general skittishness can initially make for a rather alien viewing experience. Bad Education isn’t a patch on All about my Mother, but it’s a subtle and carefully woven piece of cinema that – its rather limp ending aside – is as rapturously entertaining as what we’ve come to expect from Almodovar.