Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Gael García Bernal and Javier Cåmara have a girls’ day out in ‘Bad Education.’
Bad Education
Starring Gael García Bernal and Fele Martínez. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Rated NC-17.
All About Enrique

Bad Education is less than Almodóvar’s best, but it’s slick and handsome.


From the opening of Bad Education, you can sense that this is different from what Pedro Almodóvar usually does. A collage-like Saul Bass-inspired credit sequence and Alberto Iglesias’ tense, rhythmically driven music for string orchestra set the mood for something like a Hitchcock thriller. This may seem strange — most moviegoers know the Spanish master from his soapier efforts Talk to Her and All About My Mother, and his peerless farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Yet Almodóvar isn’t a stranger to thrillers; six years ago he did one called Live Flesh. His current film often feels like a patch on that earlier work, and while it’s definitely an improvement, it doesn’t quite catch the director at his best. Still, Almodóvar at 85 percent is better than most filmmakers at 200 percent.
The movie begins in 1980 with Ignacio Rodríguez (Gael García Bernal), a struggling actor who performs under the name of Ángel Andrade, tracking down his boyhood friend and schoolmate Enrique (Fele Martínez), who’s become one of Spain’s most promising filmmakers. Ángel has written a short story called “The Visit” based on his childhood, and he wants Enrique to adapt it into a movie, which he hopes to star in. Bad Education plays like an extended reverie blurring levels of reality, but it’s actually divided into four distinct sections: 1) The Visit as Enrique imagines it, a story of a drug-addicted transvestite named Zahara (also García Bernal) who returns to his old Catholic school to blackmail the principal, a priest named Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho); 2) a flashback within The Visit detailing how Zahara, as a young boy named Ignacio (Nacho Pérez), was sexually molested by the priest; 3) Enrique’s investigation into Ángel’s background, his offer of the lead role to Ángel in exchange for sex, and the filming of The Visit; and 4) the actual Father Manolo (Lluís Homar), a sickly old man who’s long since left the priesthood, showing up in the director’s office to give his version of the story.
Holding this potentially diffuse film together is García Bernal, sporting a gaudy wardrobe and a flawless Spanish accent. Ever since Antonio Banderas decamped for Hollywood, Almodóvar has been searching for another male actor who could be the all-potent sex symbol and nexus of desire at the center of his movies. Here, he’s finally found his man. Whether emerging from a swimming pool wearing only his briefs or on stage in a spangled gown and blonde wig and lip-syncing to Sara Montiel’s recording of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” García Bernal is a mesmerizing presence. It’s not just his looks and his NC-17-rated gay sex scenes that’ll make moviegoers of various persuasions go all dry-mouthed, it’s the wide array of characters he’s given that affords him the opportunity to display a dramatic range that you’d never suspect from his previous films.
Besides him, there are other compelling things here. A funny performance by Javier Cámara as Zahara’s fellow drag queen and partner in crime adorns the opening section — it’s a shame the character disappears for the rest of the movie. The film’s musical numbers include songs sung by little Ignacio, with erotically charged religious lyrics penned by Father Manolo to existing melodies like “Moon River.” The boy (whose piercingly pure soprano voice is provided by Pedro José Sánchez Martínez) sings Father Manolo’s version of “Torna a Sorrento” to the schoolteachers and reduces the priest to tears of spiritual and sexual rapture, and the scene manages to be exquisitely beautiful and at the same time convey a shivery sense of something deeply unclean going on. The school principal is depicted as pathetic and deluded rather than monstrous — he tells himself he’s in love with Ignacio — and a murder scene late in the film finds him horrified to discover that his burly fellow teacher Father José (Francisco Maestre) is far more evil than he is. The line José delivers over the corpse is an irresistibly juicy bit of movie-villain dialogue.
Almodóvar’s formal discipline and breathlessly sensual visual style make this film go down easy, yet something’s missing here. The house-of-mirrors trick with the plot has been done better by Charlie Kaufman, but that’s only a small shortcoming. The real problem is that the filmmaker’s use of melodrama and thriller conventions leads us to expect a violent and hugely emotional catharsis. Instead, the movie sidesteps the psychological issues raised by pedophilia and murder, and the energy that the film has been building up dissipates weakly instead of being unleashed. We get an abrupt and unsatisfying tying up of loose ends that leaves us asking, “Is that it?” That’s never good. For all its slickness and occasional power, Bad Education leaves considerably less of an impression than Almodóvar’s full-fledged masterpieces. Yet as lesser films by great filmmakers go, it has its points of interest, not least of which is the chance to see its star shirtless — or in a dress.

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