"Bad Education" ("La Mala educacion") is the latest film from Pedro Almodóvar, the acclaimed director behind "Talk to Her" and "All About My Mother." This time, Almodóvar carefully pushes the audience to its limit of tolerance as he focuses on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, homosexuality and the lengths people would go to get what they want.
The story is a complicated one, a careful and meticulous blending of several overlapping plots that vary in chronology and even reality. Careful attention needs to be paid to both the storylines and the characters' names, because if you don't catch on early you'll probably be lost until the end. Its basics revolve around Enrique (Fele Martínez), a film director who discovers his next film when his childhood friend and ex-lover Ignacio, who now prefers to be referred to as Ángel (Gael García Bernal), shows up with a story of his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his Catholic teacher. At the same time, that priest is being blackmailed by a transvestite named Zahara (also played by Bernal) due to the same circumstances. That's only the tip of the iceberg, but should give you a clue as to what to expect.
I've only seen one other Almodóvar film, and that was "Talk to Her." I liked but didn't love that one, and the same goes for "Bad Education." There are many people who seem to love all of his movies perhaps because they understand them a bit more, whereas something hidden deep down in his stories seem to sneak by when I'm watching them. Almodóvar doesn't just hand the ultimate theme of his movies over to the audience and often he has several competing themes, which confuses me a bit too much but may be the appeal to others. "Bad Education" offers up the sexual abuse of Ignacio as the source of all of the characters' problems, but where I was expecting the Catholic Church scandal to be of central importance, it clearly is not. The movie is also inundated with strong homosexual sex scenes (though no frontal nudity is shown), something that warranted an NC-17 rating from the MPAA because they are homophobic. Hell, all of America is homophobic, so it's nice to see a movie like this get through once in a while. Anyway, the ultimate theme is much more complex than anything so derivative as homosexuality or pedophilia, but you'll have to see the movie for yourself...
Visually, Almodóvar has a masterpiece on his hands. There are obvious references in his style to Hitchcock and other noir films, which only adds to the complexity of his vision. The movie is very pleasing to the eye, although I've seen enough gay sex to last for a while. The editing is very well done, not at all that different from "Memento" but with a more complicated approach, a la "21 Grams" - minus the frenetic jumping around.
The acting is also well done. Martinez and others are good, but Gael García Bernal, once more, is terrific. Bernal, known to American audiences for his roles in "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Crime of Father Amaro" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," is dazzling as he delivers a variety of characters, none of which I'll go into detail for the sake of hiding spoilers. Few American actors would take on a role like this, probably because they would come under fire from the political and religious right, but Bernal continues to deliver edgy performances that make one of the most respected and acknowledged international actors out there. Of course, kudos should also go to Almodóvar for being much the same behind the camera. The other great performance of the film is by Nacho Pérez, who plays the young Ignacio. Though his lines are few, he delivers every emotion with the skill of a master.
"Bad Education" is an interesting film that pushes the limits but doesn't cross them, and Almodóvar should be congratulated for, at the very least, presenting a very controversial story with ease. Not all of the movie hit me the way Almodóvar obviously intended it to, as his motives have yet to reveal themselves to me entirely, but it's recommended for anyone who wants to see a smart and well-done film that Hollywood would never make.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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