What I've always enjoyed most about the films of Spanish cinema provocateur Pedro Almodóvar is that his idiosyncratic, sexually ironic, deeply consequential trademarked twists of fate never cease to surprise me. Characters are always more complex than they first seem. Relationships are always intricate and knotted with intimate humanity. And his stories regularly take sudden left turns or accelerate unexpectedly from a pleasant trot to a reign-gripping gallop.
There's no predicting the heart, the humor or the horror of the writer-director behind the hilarious "Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," the kinky "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" and the affecting "All About My Mother" -- and in "Bad Education" he creates a wily, passionate puzzle several layers deep in both personality and plot.
Fele Martinez (who also starred in "Talk to Her" for Almodóvar in 2002) plays Enrique, a wunderkind movie director whose high-profile early success in life begets an unsolicited intrusion from Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), a seemingly forgotten childhood friend from Catholic school who is now a bad actor (you can tell just from his cheesy head-shots) with a script to pitch and a burning desire to play his own cross-dressing lead character.
Enrique politely tries to dismiss the interloper -- until he discovers the autobiographical story revolves around the turn Ignacio's life took after the two boys' pubescent mutual attraction was broken up by a sexually abusive priest who had them both under his thumb. A deal is struck, and as the movie-within-a-movie develops, becoming intertwined with the film's reality, Ignacio's insinuation into Enrique's life becomes increasingly disconcerting.
A complicated construct of fictionalization and flashbacks, "Bad Education" soon reveals Ignacio's rancorously colorful past as a junkie/whore transsexual (in drag Bernal looks a lot like Juliette Lewis) -- and under Almodóvar's steady hand the story evolves from a bittersweet dramedy (with hints of stalker-thriller potential) into more of a deliciously Technicolor noir flick, complete with conspiracy, murder, suicide, blackmail and ambiguous characters who are not at all what they seem.
Bernal rises to the occasion with an intrepid, unpredictable, carefully nuanced yet slightly brassy performance, as vivid as anything in Almodóvar's famously color-saturated imagery. Temperate Martinez provides a perfect counterbalance, often revealing without words Enrique's doubts about Ignacio, or Enrique's desire to make their film together as a way of getting inside his old friend's head after certain unsettling secrets come to light.
As with most Almodóvar movies, at times these characters seem so psychologically screwed up that any rational person can't help but second-guess their behavior -- and as with most Almodóvar movies, that can become a distraction. But the ebullience with which this distinctive writer-director invariably tackles his subjects can also be contagious -- and as with most Almodóvar movies, that's enough to sidestep any misgiving about "Bad Education" and just enjoy the mastery of the man's imaginative and eccentric storytelling.
(PS: The NC-17 rating on this film is absurd. Had the same sex scenes included women -- even two women -- the MPAA wouldn't have blinked an eye.)
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th March 2004
Box Office USA: $5.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $40.3M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Canal+ España, El Deseo S.A., Televisión Española TVE
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 121 Rotten: 16
IMDB: 7.5 / 10
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Gael García Bernal as Ángel/Juan/Zahara, Fele Martínez as Enrique, Daniel Giménez Cacho as Padre Manolo, Lluís Homar as Sr. Manuel Berenguer, Francisco Maestre as Padre José, Francisco Boira as Ignacio, Nacho Pérez as Young Ignacio, Raúl García Forneiro as Young Enrique, Javier Cámara as Paca/Paquito, Alberto Ferreiro as Enrique Serrano, Leonor Watling as Mónica, Petra Martínez as Madre, Roberto Hoyas as Camarero, Agustín Almodóvar as Enrique's pool attendant (uncredited), Pedro Almodóvar as Pool cleaner (uncredited), Sara Montiel as Soledad (archive footage) (uncredited), Pau Poch as Niño (uncredited), Juan Fernández as Martín
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