Though I remain partial to the wrenching melodrama All About my Mother, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education may be his best film yet, a dazzling autobiographical blend of his career, childhood, and adoration & admiration for the cinema. Bursting with passion, Bad Education details the life of two children, Ignacio and Enrique, and their growth through religious school in the 60’s to conflicted adulthood. Their relationship is fascinating yet cryptic—deception reigns supreme throughout much of Bad Education, but is just one of numerous emotional whirlwinds that the film puts us through. The repulsive Father Manolo—who, in love with Ignacio during their time together at school, expelled the rebellious Enrique out of spite—lurks throughout Bad Education (the movie spans three time periods), his presence nothing short of uneasy, and often downright creepy. It’s a great testament to Almodóvar’s direction that Father Manolo never seems like your clichéd, molesting Priest—he has his own complicated identity that reveals itself as the film progresses. While Talk to Her (2002) wasn’t particularly easy to follow, Bad Education is definitely Almodóvar’s most ambitious and complex picture—its fractured narrative and various eras make it challenging to keep straight…but boy, is the payoff rewarding.
Substituting darker shading for his usual bright colored compositions, Almodóvar shifts genres to film noir without losing his classic quirkiness and sense of comic timing. There’s still humor (Javier Cámara of Talk to Her plays a light-hearted transvestite), but it’s complementary—conversely, his earlier screwball flicks like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) are flighty above all else (their themes of feminine power would remain prevalent through his later work, slowly growing in importance). Few cinematic achievements impress me more than a director seamlessly changing tones successfully—that Almodóvar’s actually improved his work with age and experience while veering off from his earlier styles is nothing less than astounding. Bad Education is, above all, the culmination of Almodóvar’s career and life; as he himself says: “I had to make Bad Education. I had to get it out of my system before it became an obsession. I’d worked repeatedly on the script for over ten years, and I could have gone on like that for another decade. Because of the amount of possible combinations, the story of Bad Education was only finished once the film had been shot, edited, and mixed.”
Such true words, words that should be abundantly clear to any admirer of Almodóvar’s work. Bad Education aches with the triumphant realization that Almodóvar’s career has withstood adversity, matured, and become that of a true master of cinema. The emotional power of the epilogue is nothing less than thunderous—as we see & read what’s happened to each character, we tip our cap to Almodóvar more and more…but the direction is never the least bit self-effacing. He treats film as a portal directly into humanity’s core—after a murder has occurred, the culprits go into a nearby theatre to kill time. As twilight turns to dark night, the sky turns black (threatening a storm), and the assassins treat themselves to two staples of French film noir—Renoir’s La Bête Humaine and Carné’s Thérèse Raquin, movies that contain situations similar to those of the men watching them. As they exit, one of the men exclaims, “It’s as if all the films were talking about us.” Indeed, good sir…indeed.
In typical Almodóvar fashion, the femme fatale (a noir staple) isn’t a smoldering lady at all, but a fiery Gael García Bernal, dressed in drag, a lipstick, and multiple identities. Without Bernal’s versatile, astonishing performance as Ignacio/Angél/etc (you’ll see!), Bad Education wouldn’t be nearly as convincing or powerful—his steady yet simple work in Y Tu Mamá También pales in comparison. Next to Bernal, it’s simple to overlook Fele Martínez’ self-control and composure as Enrique, or Daniel Giménez Cacho’s unsettling turn as Father Manolo. If not for the presence of the life-affirming Before Sunset and the dazzling Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’d have no trouble placing this fantastic film right at the top of my 2004 list.