Bad Education Movie Review

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Pedro Almodóvar's films have always oozed adoration for tawdry movie melodrama, from the Telemundo-on-cocaine gaudiness of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to the sweet, sentimental "women's picture" romance of The Flower of My Secret. And the auteur's latest, Bad Education, may be his defining statement on the fundamental relationship between ordinary life and the illusions projected large in dark, mysterious movie houses. A fantasia of Almodóvar's trademark hang-ups that nonetheless surpasses his previous outings in scope, structure, and heart, the movie is a marvelous, noir-inspired meditation on love, sex, and identity that pulses with florid passion. It may be the best film of the year.

Almodóvar's narrative is a marvel of temporal-shifting beauty, seamlessly moving back and forth between the film's "present" of 1988, the immediate past, and a short story written by Angel (Gael García Bernal) which segues among 1988, 1977, and the 1960s while featuring its own story-within-a-story. While such convoluted chronological fracturing is initially confusing, the ultimate effect of the director's time-hopping plot construction - especially considering that Bernal tackles multiple, intimately related roles - is that one quickly finds the boundaries between reality and fiction melting away. Life and art symbiotically imitate each other in Almodóvar's colorful, hot-blooded world, with no discussion of the one complete without mention of the other. And with the story of Angel and Enrique, boyhood friends at Catholic school who are reunited years later and become involved in a semi-autobiographical movie about their youth, the relationship between fiction and reality becomes so blurred that, by film's end, there's no way to distinguish between the two.

Enrique (Fele Martinez) is a director who finds ideas for his movies in tabloid newspapers. Yet the filmmaker finds the lurid tale for his next project when Ignacio, a boyhood friend (and lover) who now goes by "Angel," arrives at his office with a short story called "The Visit" about their childhood affair, the sexual abuse Ignacio suffered at the hands of Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and a fictitious years-later confrontation between Ignacio and the pedophilic priest (deliberately reminiscent of a scene from Almodóvar's Law of Desire). Enrique is enraptured by Angel's story - which also includes an imaginary epilogue in which the characters "Enrique" and "Ignacio" reunite as adults after Ignacio has become a cross-dressing hustler named Zahara (also played by Garcia Bernal in a blond '60s wig, miniskirt, and striking eye liner) - but bristles at Angel's desire to be cast as the sexy Zahara. Soon, Enrique begins to suspect that Angel is not who he seems, and his investigation into his friend's past uncovers a murderous scheme involving Ignacio's brother and Father Manolo, who left the church, got married and had a kid, and now lives under a different name.

Almodóvar, working with cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, tones down the eye-searing primary colors of his earlier work for sharp, stark shadows and askew camera angles, turning both Angel's short story and the present-day action into an elaborate, electrifying film noir replete with double-crosses and a femme fatale (what else is Zahara/Angel?) who unrepentantly wields sex like a weapon. A gorgeous nighttime bathroom scene in which the adolescent Ignacio and Enrique cower in the corner of a stall from Father Manolo, only their faces lit by a swath of bright light, would make Jacques Tourneur proud, while Alberto Iglesias' thrumming score - full of piercing horns which rise and fall in relation to the film's escalating tension - harkens back to Bernard Herrman's Psycho theme. Even a sunny "Moon River" sequence (in which children bobbing in and out of a glistening lake visually parallels Father Manolo's unsavory activities with Ignacio in the bushes) is imbued with inexorable menace. And Bad Education's recurring theme of duality - with regards to both Angel's identity and the very nature of love and memory - is intimately grounded in noir's obsession with ambiguousness and doubling.

Typically, drugs, transsexuals, crude humor, criticism of the Catholic Church, and a romantically cynical portrait of love as part role-playing, part financial transaction, and part blackmail are all part of Almodóvar's thrilling mise-en-scene. Moreover, García Bernal, in a role that requires him to use his sensual, slightly feminine good looks to convey not only flamboyant female sexiness but also a desperate, ruthless coldness, brings his multiple characters to life with such convincing vibrancy that he unintentionally overshadows his fellow cast members' solid, affecting work. Yet it's the director's magnificent meta shenanigans - from a dual sexual awakening in a crowded theater to a gorgeous Godard-inspired camera pull-back during the filming of Enrique's movie - that makes the film sizzle. Giddily infatuated with the power and possibilities of the cinema, Bad Education is Almodóvar's outrageous, outstanding lesson on the way in which movies serve as both a conduit for, and reflection of, our most fervent dreams and desires.

The DVD adds a director commentary, a scant few deleted scenes, and minor additional extras.

Aka La Mala educación.

Who's ready for school?

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Bad Education Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: R, 2004

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