Bad Education
(La Mala Educacion)

Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment,

Pedro Almodovar

Gael Garcia Bernal,
Fele Martinez,
Daniel Gimenez Cacho,
Lluis Homar,
Francisco Maestre,
Francisco Boira,
Juan Fernandez,
Nacho Perez,
Raul Garcia Forneiro,
Javier Camara

Rated NC-17, 106 minutes

Latin Noir
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, November 2009

Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education ((La Mala Educacion) is the most remarkable film I have seen in a long time. This will sound like high praise but it is, in some ways, queer cinema's closest equivalent to Hitchcock's Vertigo. People are not whom they seem to be, new identities are assumed, and memories create ideals that become more important than reality.

Almodovar is one of the finest, as well as one of the most iconoclastic, queer filmmakers working today. His worldwide acclaim goes way beyond the borders of queer circles and his 1999 All About My Mother won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Almodovar's films, as far back as the early 1980s, have always included affectionate treatments of gay and transgender characters and his treatment of sex, in all its incarnations, has been nothing short of groundbreaking. He will also always be remembered for introducing Antonio Banderas - who played gay in Labyrinth of Passions (1982) and Law Of Desire (1987) - to international audiences.

The setting is Madrid in 1980. Bad Education involves a film director, Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), whose writer's block is resolved when he receives a surprise visit from a boyhood friend. And not just any boyhood friend; Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Enrique were in love when they were young adolescents at the same Catholic boarding school. Enrique doesn't recognize him (and attributes this to his visitor's beard) but welcomes him nonetheless. Ignacio is a stage actor looking for film work. When asked if he still writes, Ignacio - who prefers to be called now by his stage name, Angel - gives the director a story that he penned, entitled "The Visit." Part of the story is inspired by their adventures as children, he explains, and the adult section is fiction.

As Enrique reads the script, the cinemascope screen shrinks and we are treated to a film within a film. The actor playing Ignacio appears again in this interlude as Zahara, a drag queen. Along with a fellow drag performer (Javier Camara), Zahara prepares to rob a drunken trick. Zahara is really Ignacio and, when he rifles through their trick's wallet, he discovers that the man is Enrique, his boyhood love. Zahara writes a love letter, in which he asks if they can meet again, and leaves it on his beloved's pillow.
As Ignacio's script continues, Zahara and his sidekick rob their boyhood church. Inside, Zahara confronts the pastor, Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), and threatens him with blackmail. Manolo is handed a story to read, entitled "The Visit," which triggers an extended flashback. The audience now learns that Father Manolo is a pious pedophile who desired Ignacio as a boy. He was jealous of Ignacio and Enrique's friendship and threatened the two boys with expulsion when he found them hiding together one night in a lavatory stall. "I sold myself for the first time that night in the sacristy," Ignacio writes. He gave himself to the priest in order to save his comrade but the good padre expelled Enrique anyway and Ignacio vowed that someday he would have his revenge.
Enrique, confronted with his past, feels energized and wants to make his first love's script into a movie. But he also has misgivings. He is especially troubled because, when he looks at his old friend, he doesn't see the boy he once loved. Each man marks his territory; Ignacio wants to play Zahara in the movie and Enrique rewrites the ending. The film eventually goes into production but, when the real Father Manolo (Lluis Homar) shows up on the set for some third act drama, we enter another universe entirely.
That is all I will say about the plot except to note that, at the film's midpoint, the rug is pulled out from under the protagonist's - and by extension, the audience's - feet in much the same way that Hitchcock fucked with our heads in the middle of Vertigo. I will not discuss this further except to say that from this point on it is impossible to accept anything that you see, or believe in its face value.
I've mentioned Vertigo. By no means do I want to suggest that the plots are the same; there is a similar feel to the story's central mystery, a variation on a theme. Does Enrique emulate James Stewart and attempt to re-create his boyhood love? Not really, aside from telling him that he would look better without his beard. But part of our tale does involve Enrique having to deal with his past while coming to terms with the image of his first love. Memories can lie and the truth isn't always up to snuff.
Bad Education is a truly unique blend of melodrama and thriller, with just a touch of camp, and it makes for a delicious stew. Here is a story which, in the wrong hands, could have easily turned into Valley Of The Dolls. But Almodovar is too accomplished a filmmaker to allow that to happen.
There is so much in this film to savor. The opening credit sequence deliberately invokes Hitchcock, most especially Saul Bass' famous titles for Psycho. Images are ripped, torn bars and credits race across the screen. The music is reminiscent of film noir with a touch of Latin romanticism. This is Raymond Chandler with a transgender twist. Ignacio is the mystery's femme-fatale and he takes his role to new heights by performing some of it in quite fetching drag. The movie is set in 1980 when a post-Franco Spain was still enjoying its sexual revolution. Sex is often centered around who is in power in both the adult and adolescent parts to the tale. There is passion and there is deceit. There's also a tragic tranny (Francisco Boira) who figures prominently in the third act.
There is also eye candy galore. Watch one of the greatest teases ever filmed when Enrique stands waiting in his swimming pool as Ignacio dives over his head. A Bruce Weber-esque shot of Ignacio getting out of the water, his white shorts plastered to his crotch, leaves nothing to the imagination. To some the sex might seem quite explicit (it certainly did to the MPAA, which gave the film an NC-17 rating). It is apparent what the men are doing, but it doesn't cross the line into hard core porn. Some of it is hot, some of it is funny. During the film within a film, Zahara goes down on the drunken Enrique, who falls asleep. Zahara lifts his head and shouts, in a gravelly Harvey Fierstein voice, "Hey! I'm sucking on your dick!" Almodovar has a knack for getting away with some of the most outrageous humor. Look also for a scene where Ignacio, in skimpy shorts, is the object of voyeurism while he performs the most provocative push-ups you will ever see.
The MPAA must have also been uneasy with the scenes involving the two boys. Nothing is shown, yet the attraction between the two is unmistakable. There is a lovely coming-of-age scene in which the two boys go to the cinema together and watch a melodrama starring noted Spanish actress, and sex symbol, Sara Montiel. (Earlier in this film within in a film, the adult Ignacio/Zahara bases his drag on Montiel and performs one of her songs. Bad Education is, in part, an homage to the Mediterranean gay icon.) Both remark how beautiful their screen goddess is, and look now and then and again at each other. Though we only see them from the shoulders up, it is obvious what their wandering hands are doing. Such scenes are usually considered charming when it's boy meets girl, and it is no less charming here.
Their tale marks the most moving scenes in the film. They meet that night in their dorm's lavatory. Ignacio worries that they have just committed a sin while Enrique shrugs it off because he's a hedonist (he tells his friend he found the word in a dictionary and that it means "people who have fun"). Suddenly they have to hide. A truly terrifying scene, wherein Father Manolo pushes open all the stall doors in the lavatory, generates nail baiting suspense.
Pedophilia is a terrible crime, it is even more reprehensible when the perpetrators are priests. But Bad Education is not a polemic against the church, this theme is just one of the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle. The abuse is not shown, but a scene in which the young Ignacio performs his duties as altar boy, and removes the priest's robes following mass, takes on sinister overtones. Even so, Almodovar doesn't dwell on the abuse. It is the springboard for the rest of the story which has more twists than a rollercoaster. When the priest descends on the studio set, the film takes a completely different turn that viewers should discover on their own without any spoilers from me.

Bad Education is loaded with colorful and unforgettable characters and the acting by all is exceptional. Roger Ebert reports that Gael Garcia Bernal is a very popular actor in Spain and compared his work to Johnny Depp's. Like Depp, he is certainly a virtual chameleon in this film. The widescreen cinematography is a feast for the eyes; it's Hitchcock crossed with Fassbinder and every frame is a knockout. Bad Education is a major work from a filmmaker at the top of his form. You're in for a wild ride here, so come on in and take the plunge. The water is warm.


More on Pedro Almodovar
Law Of Desire

Javier Camara also appears in:
Chef's Special