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Bad Education

Bad Education
Sony Pictures
2004 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min. / La mala educación / Street Date April 12, 2005 / 26.96
Starring Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lluís Homar
Cinematography José Luis Alcaine
Art Direction Antxón Gómez
Film Editor José Salcedo
Original Music Alberto Iglesias
Produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar, Esther García
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Pedro Almodóvar's latest offering is a complex mystery thriller that skillfully blends the past, the present, a fictional account and a "filmed version" of reality into a story of amorous revenge. It's being released in two versions, R and NC-17. The R version deletes only a couple of brief scenes and doesn't change the film's basic incompatibility with average audiences - this intense experience will repel those uncomfortable with gay lifestyles and variations therein. Those easily offended might want to steer away. In the main title graphic, the words La mala educación spell out above the image of a black cross.

Some of Almodóvar's best recent pictures have had strong subplots about transsexuality and drug use. The more conventionally compassionate film All About My Mother shows a profound sensitivity to the emotions of women. Bad Education is almost exclusively about male gays.


Filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is contacted by a friend he hasn't seen since grade school. Ignacio (Gael García Bernal) presents him with a short story that elaborates on their past history. In the story, young Ignacio and Enrique are 19 year-old lovers separated by a jealous priest obsessed with Ignacio, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). As an adult transvestite, Ignacio attempts to blackmail the priest. Back in the present, Enrique wants to film Ignacio's story but does not trust him. He soon discovers that Ángel might not be who he says he is, and a complicated web of intrigues begins to unravel.

To many viewers Bad Education will seem an abomination, as it goes completely against conventions of how homosexual activity is portrayed in mainstream drama. The main characters are gay, plain and simple and (in the NC-17 version, at least) there's no mistaking what they're doing. Those familiar with Almodóvar movies know that he doesn't approach bizarre characters as if they were freaks alien to society. Nor do his gay characters resemble the cute and harmless comedians in movies like The Birdcage. All About My Mother won the Oscar for best foreign film because of its compassionate treatment of all kinds of characters, not because it had 'shocking' content.

The shocking content in Bad Education puts a number of gay issues in a thriller context. The central event is the molesting of a ten-year old in a church boarding school, by a priest with a serious problem. Harsh moral codes were invented to prevent this kind of crime, but Almodóvar's story condemns the priest only for the grave harm he does. Young Ignacio is psychologically damaged, as represented by a graphic where he is literally split in two by a single drop of blood. In a way, both Ignacio and the priest are destroyed by their shared experience.

That central situation is revisited seventeen years later when a person calling himself Ignacio re-enters Enrique's life. The twists and revelations of the plot are marked by references to film noir. After a murder, a pair of killers pass the time at a noir festival; at a statuary exhibit, giant sculpted faces seem to laugh at two conspirators. The plot is a complex puzzle in which the events of the past are "imagined" as a short story and then "realized" on a film set. The predatory priest is played by Daniel Giménez Cacho in the "fictionalized" versions, and by Lluís Homar when he appears "for real" seventeen years after the grade-school crimes. One character, two interpretations ... Almodóvar has solved Luis Buñuel's filmic problem of having two actresses play the same character in That Obscure Object of Desire.

Pedro Almodóvar's films propose that there are endless permutations in human sexual identities. Bad Education's Ignacio is his most complicated character yet. Only a few years after the sexual abuse, Ignacio has become a transvestite heroin addict obsessed with the idea of blackmailing Father Manolo. He's also made a partial transexual conversion. He's later impersonated by an actor; the actor observes and interviews a performing drag queen to better play a fictional character, "Zahara," that is based on Ignacio. It's a real Chinese box of a story.

Bad Education pulls in more references, to Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's and to the musical soap operas of Sarita Montiel (known to Americans through the westerns Vera Cruz and Run of the Arrow). If the perversities of the film carry an author's message, it's that perversity is normal. It certainly is in the world of Pedro Almodóvar.

Fifteen years ago Átame! was rated "X" when it barely deserved an "R"; Bad Education is a solid NC-17 in that everything about gay sex is represented except actual sex organs. Almodóvar's extreme concepts would make real sex acts seem tame, anyway. There's not much in the way of comedy and the all-male thriller format doesn't offer the director's deeply affecting portraits of women on the verge of breakdowns - these quasi-women are strange imitations. The show is too disturbing to simply be a black comedy. The director's sense of drama serves the serious subject matter well, and his distinctive design and music sense are fully in evidence.

Gael García Bernal handles three complex roles; Spanish speakers will be impressed by the Mexican actor's Castillian accent. Fele Martínez is a concerned but cold hero. Although he plays the priest only in short story and film interpretations, Daniel Giménez Cacho is genuinely chilling as a pious monster. He becomes a murderer only in Ignacio and Enrique's imaginations. Lluís Homar, the older priest in real life, is a monster of more banal proportions.

Sony Pictures' DVD of Bad Education has arrived in a stunning enhanced transfer with a perfect image and audio. The director provides an insightful audio commentary in Spanish, translated on a second audio track. There are two brief deleted scenes (not missed), a short making-of featurette, a photo gallery with dozens of poster concepts called "poster explorations", and a Spanish theatrical trailer.

The longest extra is a video of an AFI preview at the Arclight last fall (that Savant missed!) in which Bernal, Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz talk to the camera from the Red Carpet.

On startup, the disc immediately plays a promo for the film Being Julia; it can be skipped by pushing the menu button.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Bad Education rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: audio commentary, featurette, deleted scenes, preview interviews, still gallery, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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