Director Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is one the Spanish iconoclast’s darkest films, a meditation on the lifelong wounds forged by abuse, betrayal, and loss. At the same time, it’s a taut metafictional melodrama serving up rollicking plot twists alongside clever, skewed insights into deception, seduction, and the nature of the self — all while wrestling with taboos almost as deftly as the irreverent comedies that first won Almodovar international recognition, like 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine
Editor: José Salcedo
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Gimeénez Cacho, Lluís Homar
US Theatrical Release: December 10, 2004
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Almodovar’s filmmaking has long been suffused with a libertine spirit descended from the Movida Madrileña, the countercultural eruption that gripped his home country — and especially the capital that he had made his home — in the wake of dictator Francisco Franco’s 1975 demise. Yet this gleefully subversive sensibility has led him down some intriguingly counterintuitive paths as a director and storyteller: even as he’s shaken off strictures of social and aesthetic convention, he’s developed a piercing psychological acuity and a baroque sense of plotting. The resulting films are, at their best, an intoxicating prism magnifying the glamor, sorrow, and delirium of his characters and their (often fascinatingly fucked-up) lives.
When he’s steered these considerable artistic gifts towards bleaker territory, the results have tended to have an undercurrent of dark comedy — see his most recent critical success, the macabre 2011 thriller The Skin I Live In. But although it’s possessed with a wicked sense of irony, Bad Education is more severe, sincere, and tender than much of Almodovar’s dramatic oeuvre. That Almodovar yields such a humane drama from the film’s complex and labyrinthine plot is a remarkable accomplishment.
Bad Education follows a number of narrative threads, and before long each one is revealed as a feint or fiction. Anchoring and framing them all is the story of filmmaker Enrique Goded, living in Madrid in the early 1980s and searching for his next project. Inspiration strikes when Ignacio, a friend and lover from Enrique’s Catholic schoolboy past, shows up burnishing a short story based in part on their childhood travails.
The story, entitled The Visit, is dramatized in Bad Education’s opening act. It follows Zahara, a transgender drag performer, named Igancio at birth, who writes a story called The Visit detailing a pattern of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic school priest — and soon blackmails the priest with the threat of the story’s publication. Enrique is smitten with the story and insists on moving forward with its adaptation, only to find that Ignacio demands the role of Zahara, arguing vehemently against Enrique’s conviction that he’s a poor fit for the part. Increasingly perplexed by his interactions with Igancio, Enrique does some digging and discovers that his childhood friend’s sudden reappearance is not what it seems.
From there, Bad Education is given over to Almodovar’s knack for intricately mindbending theatrics. As the film careens towards its conclusion, each piece of its story becomes unhitched from any sense of certainty, as scenes and interactions replay themselves in wildly different configurations and contexts. In tone and form, Almodovar’s film is an overt Hitchcock homage, and its thematic focus on identity and duplicity certainly brings to mind Vertigo. Yet its knotty structure also echoes, at different points, Fellini’s self-cannibalizing 8 1/2 and Kurosawa’s legendary rumination on memory Rashomon.
I prefer the madcap spills and thrills of his Almodovar's ’80s work, it’s not hard to recognize the remarkable craftsmanship on display in Bad Education — Almodovar says he worked on the script for ten years, and it shows. Still, there are a handful of things that give me pause. To touch on just one topic that deserves far more attention, Almodovar’s seeming disregard for distinctions between trans and drag identities, though likely a product of his queer coming of age in the ‘70s and ’80s, reads as outdated, if not offensive, in 2015.
But stepping outside of the film itself, I also have reservations about its embrace by the film critic mainstream film criticism. Upon its release, many writers proclaimed Bad Education Almodovar’s finest work, echoing the near-identical accolades awarded to Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, released the same year. In both cases, an established gay male filmmaker set aside the glorious, singular impoliteness of his earlier work and made a heavy-hearted, introspective drama tracing a connection between queer sexualities and experiences of child sexual abuse. To be fair, I think both films have thoughtful, vital things to say about the subject. But it’s an uncomfortable reminder of the American’s critical establishment’s weakness for films made by minority filmmakers of all backgrounds whose themes coincide with conventional tropes of victimhood.
Long before Bad Education, Almodovar had forged his own distinctively queer stylistic grammar and cinematic voice. While many of the films he made along the way are still held in high regard, Bad Education’s reputation as his best film threatens to erase some of what made him an important enough figure for the film to be noticed in the first place.