Pedro Almodovar’s rainbow flavoured Film Noir, teeming with gay gaudiness and subverted genre conventions, is sweet and perverse mind candy by a master confectioner. Built with the basic blocks of any Noir, the femme fatale, ambiguity of good and evil, or saint and sinner, narrative through flashbacks and frames, and a sense of the pressure of a mysterious past, Bad Education transforms them into a fresh and fascinating, although wildly unfocused, film. Ultimately a story within a story within a story, each filled with as much truth as invention, Almodovar explores four characters over a period of about twenty years, from their Catholic education well into their adulthood. A sometimes priest, two gay brothers, one of whom is a transvestite, and a successful film director are the principal players, an interesting deviation from Almodovar’s usual fascination with female characters. The film’s perplexing plot revolves mainly around stories, written by the triply named Zahara/Juan/Angel, which become both evidence and fiction.
Partly autobiographical, the film nevertheless warns that any retelling of past events, including Bad Education itself, is bound to contain numerous distortions and prejudices. As such, the controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of Catholic clergy, and its abuses, is rather unfounded as Almodovar is never simple in his accusations and criticisms. The abusive priest, for example, is intentionally distanced from the Church in later segments of the film, making it difficult to lay the blame for the titular “bad education” on a group, but rather on an individual, who himself is portrayed as lost and enslaved to powers and urges that he does not fully understand. Also unclear is Almodovar’s opinion on using art as a political tool. Certainly able to expose the comforted, as Juan’s story does, it can also be used as blatant profiteering. Whether Bad Education is meant to do either, both, or none is up for debate.
A major theme of the film is performance. One of the central characters is an actor, who impersonates people in front and beyond the range of the camera, another a director, the third a transvestite, a man performing as a woman, and the last an abusive priest, whose spiritual and later domestic life is a play put on to mask his true identity. A pivotal scene in which an abused boy, now an adult, confronts a priest appears to be an objective flashback but turns out to be a scene in a film. And after plotting a murder, two characters decide to go to the cinema (showing posters for Double Indemnity and La Bete Humaine), in what they believe will be a way to pass the time, but what Almodovar states is yet another performance. Almost in every scene characters perform for each other. From singing, to posing in and around a pool, and even to sex, characters play roles. That the same actors often have parts in each of the three frames of Bad Education underlines the eventual confusion and breakdown of these roles. The priest, for example, despite his desire to lead a heterosexual family life, finally gives in completely to, what we assume, is his true identity. On a larger level, Almodovar, as he often does, explores gender as an assigned role.
Throughout the film, Almodovar displays his technical filmmaking ability. From point of view shots, substituting the objectification of the female body with the male, to smaller and smaller “frames” of vision meant to show the impossibility of camera objectivity and the narrowness of human understanding and acceptance, he shows complete control over a film that is a strange mix of control and chaos, ugliness and beauty. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Bad Education is its ability to make the viewer feel at once uncomfortable and intrigued through subject matter and presentation. In doing so, it shows just how schematic and shallowly reaffirming most films are.
Rating: 4.0 / 4.0