Bad Education (Spain, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In recent years, few things have been more certain than the guarantee of something delicious from director Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar 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 Almodóvar.

If there's one genre with which Almodóvar is incompatible, it's film noir. Known for his vivid, often garish use of color, Almodóvar 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 Almodóvar's career is muted.

Bad Education introduces us to Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), an up-and-coming gay film director who is visited by a schoolboy chum, Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael García 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 (Lluís Homar). 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 Almodóvar. It's unclear which of the elements are autobiographical, but drawing a parallel between Enrique and Almodóvar 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. Almodóvar 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 identification. The performances are fine, and there are occasional flashes of the kind of inspired direction we have come to expect from Almodóvar, but, ultimately, Bad Education must be considered to be a minor effort from a major director.

Bad Education (Spain, 2004)

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lluís Homar, Javier Cámara
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine
Music: Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: In Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1