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November 2004

Bad Education

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Producers: Agustin Almodovar and Pedro Almodovar
Screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar
Composer: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Gael Garcia Martinez, Fele Martinez, Gael Garcia Martinez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lluis Homar




Pedro Almodovar has long distinguished himself as Spain's preeminent filmmaker. His films primarily focus on the veracity of human sexuality and its conflicting emotional states. Almodovar uses sex, graphically portrayed and often violent, as the undercurrent to his plot. It's usually very effective, driving the story while adding a distinctly lurid and visual signature. His last two films, Talk to Her and All About My Mother, were masterful works of cinema, beautifully shot and impressively dramatic. His latest effort, La Mala Educacion (The Bad Education), is an unfortunate step back from the excellence of his recent work. He goes sexually overboard and loses sight of the narrative. The result is an incredibly poor third act that will leave you unsatisfied and disappointed.

The film takes place in various Spanish locales throughout the 70's and early 80's. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an actor that brings a script to a famous director (Fele Martinez). The script details the love affair between two boys at a Catholic school and the sexual abuse one of them suffered at the hands of a pedophile priest. Years later, as the script goes, the boy returns as a man seeking to extort money from the priest, or he'll go public with the affair. The script is based on the true relationship between the director and actor as children in the school. The director, who hasn't seen his friend since childhood, is unsure that the actor is who he says he is. He goes on a quest to discover the truth behind the script and if the actor is his boyhood lover.

The plot is extremely complex. I deliberately avoided naming the characters because each actor, particularly Gael Garcia Bernal, is known by several names throughout the films. It's part of the mystery of uncovering who is telling the truth. The film is not hard to follow, but attention must be paid to figure out what is going on. That's a good thing, it initially pulls you in and there is a genuine interest as to what is happening. The problem is that after all the conjecture; the third act fails to adequately resolve the characters dilemmas. It's a pretty weak ending and will leave you with the feeling of having utterly wasted two hours watching the movie.

Narrative failure aside, The Bad Education is a well crafted film with extraordinary performances from the lead actors. Gael Garcia Bernal and Fele Martinez go to great lengths on screen. The movie is laced with explicit homosexual love scenes. It's pretty hardcore and you've got to respect any actor that is willing to expose themselves in such a graphic manner. Almodovar gets carried away with these scenes after using them to great effect in the beginning. They become trite and start taking away from plot development. Other critics have voiced the opinion that the sex scenes dictate character motivation and are essential throughout the film. I disagree with the extent to which Almodovar runs with it to the end. It doesn't add anything that we don't already know and ends up adding wasted time to the film's length.

The Catholic Church takes a beating here. The school system and rampant child abuse is damningly portrayed. Almodovar doesn't shy away from the shock value of the pedophilia scenes and many audience members will be uncomfortable, as they should be. He points fingers at the establishment, revealing a story that has become all too common. Spain, long ruled by Franco's socialist morale agenda and Catholic teachings, was rife with sexual abuse at religious institutions. The specific time period of the film, right after Spain emerged from Franco's dictatorship, refers to the sexual openness many people embarked upon. International audiences won't recognize that historical significance, but it's important to bring up as it was Almodovar's reason for making the movie.

The Bad Education is a step back from what we've come to expect from Almodovar. It's flawed, but still more interesting than most of the films out there today. I suspect it will be remembered more for the fine acting performances by the lead cast. Spanish language films have really come to the forefront this year and exposed audiences to the superb actors that star in them. Hopefully, mainstream film companies will recognize these talented people and give them a chance to star in wide-release American movies. They certainly couldn't do any worse than what we've come to expect out of New York and Los Angeles.