2004 TIFF Update #9: "Spanish Masters"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 17, 2004

In recent years, few things have been more certain at film festivals than the guarantee of something delicious from director Pedro Almodovar. Almodovar has become like a trusted brand name - reliable and consistent. Unfortunately, with his new effort, called Bad Education, the streak ends. By ordinary standards, this movie would be considered unremarkable. However, by the standards this director has established, Bad Education represents Bad Almodovar.

If there's one genre with which Almodovar is incompatable, it's film noir. Known for his vivid, often garish use of color, Almodovar is not the kind of director who can work in the murky, desaturated realm that defines film noir. He tries with Bad Education, but the mismatch is apparent. The palette of hues is toned down, but not enough to generate the intense atmosphere that film noir requires. At the same time, the high energy that has defined Almodovar's career is muted.

Bad Education introduces us to Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), an up-and-coming gay film director whos is visited by a schoolboy chum, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal). Back when they were pupils at a strict Catholic school, the two were in love, but Enrique had a rival for Ignacio's affections: the principal, Father Manolo. Now, years later, the two have been re-united. Ignacio gives Enrique a story to read - a true account of their time together as boys with a fictionalized ending. Enrique decides to use this material for his next movie, and agrees to cast Ignacio, a struggling actor, in a key role. But, as filming progresses, Enrique begins to have doubts about his leading man. Is this really Ignacio, or is something more sinister at work?

The film's portrayal of Enrique leads us to believe that he is, at least in part, based on Almodovar. It's unclear which of the elements are autobiographical, but drawing a parallel between Enrique and Almodovar during his earliest successful years in the '80s is entirely reasonable, especially since the "present" sequences of Bad Education are set during that era.

Every film noir must have a femme fatale, or, in this case, an homme fatale (since the couplings are all homosexual, and there are no significant female roles). Ignacio fills the part adequately, but the mysteries explored by the script aren't sufficiently compelling to draw the viewer in. Additionally, there's little tension or suspense. When the big "reveal" occurs, it's greeted by both the director and his audience with little more than a shrug.

Character development is weak, perhaps in part because there are so many different variations on the key participants. We encounter Enrique and Igancio as kids, as adults, in Ignacio's story, and in Enrique's movie adaptation of Ignacio's story. Almodovar attempts to keep things straight by varying the movie's aspect ratio (so we know whether what we're seeing is "real" or "dramatized"), but, while this limits confusion, it doesn't amplify character idenfitication. The performances are fine, and there are occasional flashes of the kind of inspired direction we have come to expect from Almodovar, but, ultimately, Bad Education must be considered to be a minor effort from a major director.

Although Alejandro Amenabar has not yet reached the level of achievement of his countrymen and fellow filmmaker, Almodovar, his limited resume to-date (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others) has shown him to be somone to watch. With his latest production, The Sea Within, he departs from the realm of the thriller and tries for something that deals more deeply with the human heart.

The Sea Inside is so far from a typical "euthenasia" movie that it's startling. Whenever Hollywood tackles this subject (which doesn't happen often - this isn't a topic that packs in the crowds), the melodrama and manipulation go into overdrive. Not here. Amenabar maintains a low-key approach that preserves the film's emotional integrity while still making a powerful statement.

For nearly 28 years, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem in a titanic and moving performance) has been paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a diving accident. During all his years as a quadriplegic, he has been fighting for the right to die, because he believes that his existence has become "a life without dignity." Now, as he faces the culmination of his court battles, he writes a book with his new lawyer, Julia (Belen Rueda), with whom he has fallen in love. But even this new spark of emotion does not change Ramon's mind, and, with or without the court's consent, Julia expresses a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice and help him.

Amenabar offers both sides of this potentially charged issue, and he does not shortchange or dumb down arguments to support either position. Points and counterpoints are presented in both the intellectual and emotional arenas. Does a person have the right to die if he decides that "life that costs freedom isn't life?" And which shows the greater love: to keep someone alive or to help them take their life? The Sea Inside offers no facile explanations or resolutions, but makes us feel the answers in our hearts.

As we watch the film, we become Ramon - bursting with life, humor, and intelligence, yet unable to reach out and bridge even the shortest distance to his loved ones. "Dependence comes at the cost of intimacy," he comments at one point, and we understand. I can think of few things more frustrating than being unable to touch my wife. I can understand wanting to die in this situation, yet I can admire a man like Christopher Reeve for soldiering on.

For a movie about a man battling for the right to die (an inherently somber subject), The Sea Inside contains a fair amount of humor. Especially memorable is the exchange between Ramon and a quadriplegic priest that involves an intermediary running up and down stairs. There are also a pair of touching romances. In addition to the bond that develops between Ramon and Julia, a local DJ becomes smitten with Ramon. Both of these relationships are heartfelt and radiate longing. Like the rest of Amenabar's most mature film to-date, they are sublime.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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