I got into considerable hot water with some readers for highly recommending this film when it first came out, so I’ll say from the onset that Bad Education (2004) is a full-blown NC-17 rated work that is dark and disturbing. It’s also a work that makes no bones about its gay sexual content (despite the fact that it eschews full-frontal nudity). This is a work where I would direct the reader to the full review available in the archives on the Xpress Web site.
Here, I will only say that the film represents Almodovar at his mature best in a deliberately autobiographical — though clearly fictionalized — story about Spain’s most famous filmmaker, Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), coming to terms with his past when his first childhood love, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal), re-enters his life. Though Almodovar’s sense of humor is evident, Bad Education is easily the director’s most overtly serious film to date, his most shattering and possibly his best.
Original Review from Mar 16, 2005
Before even attempting to discuss Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education, a word of friendly warning: While the film is devoid of actual frontal nudity, in terms of sexual frankness, it fully earns its NC-17 rating. If scenes of gay sexual activity that leave nothing to the imagination offend or upset you, this is a movie perhaps best skipped.
However, if such sexuality doesn’t bother you, this is easily the best and most rewarding (if also the most disturbing) movie to hit town in 2005 to date. Almodovar is that rarest of filmmakers — one whose work becomes more daring with each film. He doesn’t always get better, but he never stops pushing the envelope of his medium, in both style and content. And when those two elements come together in complete accord, as they do here, the results are nothing short of fantastic.
This round, Almodovar may not do anything quite so daring as stopping his film dead to present an allegorical silent movie, as he did in Talk to Her. But this neo-Hitchcockian (there’s a lot of Vertigo at work here) film with overtones of autobiographical fantasy and self-examination is, if anything, even richer.
Because of the complexity of the film’s structure — and the fact that part of the film’s power comes from not knowing where the story is going — Bad Education is a difficult movie to discuss.
The film appears to be the story of Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez, Darkness), Spain’s most famous filmmaker, who is confronted by his first great love, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries), years after they were separated in childhood. Ignacio arrives bearing a story, The Visit, which combines their actual past with a fantasticated imagining of their later years, and in which Ignacio wants to star as his fictionalized self: the flamboyant drag queen, Zahara (also Bernal).
The story — visualized as part of the film Enrique makes as we watch — details the boys’ prepubescent “love affair” and their separation due to the machinations of a pedophile priest, Father Manolo (Daniel Giminez Cacho, the narrator of Y Tu Mama Tambien), who is obsessed with Ignacio. This much is given to us as fact, but from there the story puts forth an alternate future that involves the two meeting again as adults and an attempt by Ignacio/Zahara to blackmail Manolo.
The story intrigues Enrique enough for him to want to turn it into his next film, while Ignacio intrigues him romantically. But Ignacio is as strangely unsusceptible to the romantic inclinations of his first love as Enrique is resistant to having Ignacio star as Zahara. Instead, Enrique envisions Ignacio playing Enrique’s adult alter ego in the film. That’s about as far as it’s possible to go in describing the plot without giving away secrets best left to the film.
What can be discussed is the complexity of Almodovar’s characters and the emotions inherent in the material. It’s rare to see characters as completely developed as are the ones in this film — and even rarer that such characters continue to suggest depths that can never be conveniently penetrated. Almodovar manages to unveil just enough to allow us to know their emotions, and in some cases, to identify with them. But at the same time, he always keeps something back, deftly avoiding simplistic explanations.
There are few moments in film history that strike a deeper emotional resonance than a scene where the young Ignacio (Nacho Perez) and young Enrique (Raul Garcia Forneiro) see each other across a playground as each morphs into his adult self; in one way or another, it’s a scene anyone can relate to from his or her own life. The fact that there’s even more to this scene — something made clear as the film gives up its secrets — transforms the moment from the bittersweet to a level of almost unbearable personal tragedy. And yet, the tragedy is one that can also be related to.
It is this twist that makes the film powerful to a degree that is finally uncomfortable — a quality that’s common in Almodovar’s work, but which here differs in one regard. Generally, Almodovar’s world is one that veers at least slightly toward the comedic, to act as a kind of buffer and soften the more serious (and even unwholesome) aspects of the story. There’s virtually no such material in Bad Education, but the results never feel forced or strained; instead, this straight-faced approach comes off as quite suitable.
Though the story here has little in common with his last film, Talk to Her, Bad Education explores many of the same themes and preoccupations — to the degree that one thing I wrote about Talk to Her applies equally well to this film: “For Almodovar, sexual identity — identity at all — is not easily assessed and seems largely dependent on circumstances.” In fact, that same quality is at the bottom of this brilliant and unsettling work.
Having opened this review with a warning, it’s only fair to close it with another, different kind of warning: Don’t dawdle about seeing Bad Education. It won’t be around very long. Rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke