January 14, 2005

Bad Education

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar Starring Gael García Bernal

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Critics ordained Pedro Almodóvar the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema in the 1980s, when he made the sinfully racy Matador and Law of Desire - works that would later influence filmmakers such as Álex de la Iglesia, J.J. Bigas Luna and Gregg Araki. During the past two decades though, Almodóvar's films have lost that campy zaniness and melodramatic hysteria while his staple trannies and junkies have also worn out their novelty. Judging from its title, early buzz and an NC-17 rating courtesy of the MPAA, his latest promises to be a scandalous semi-autobiographical hell-raiser about abuse in Catholic school during the Franco Era. But Bad Education turns out to be a rather orthodox genre exercise recalling the director's relatively forgettable High Heels and Live Flesh.

Perhaps eager to institute an anti-cleric body of work, Gael García Bernal has traded the Roman collar of Padre Amaro for glamorous Gautier dresses to portray an aspiring actor stage-named Ángel. Claiming to be a long-lost boyhood pal/sweetheart, he pays a surprise visit to rising filmmaker Enrique (Fele Martinez) and entices him with a juicy short story based on their past just as Enrique happens to be searching for a subject for his next project. The short story-cum-film The Visit cleverly serves as Enrique's subjective flashback. But underneath the film-within-a-film masquerade is a generic noir cinematically quoting classics such as Vertigo and Double Indemnity, with the cross-dressing Ángel as its femme fatale. Unlike in The Boys of St. Vincent, the controversial topic of child abuse and its psychological effect on the victim seem like a sideshow rather than the central catechesis in Bad Education. The film barely hints at those hot-button subjects, rendering them coincidental plot elements while a murder mystery takes centre stage. The guilty priest is merely another sucker caught in the black widow's web.

Bad Education is at times luminous thanks to José Luis Alcaine's cinematography, and even its predatory creeps have strangely seductive twinkles in their eyes. Curiously, the film presents its central plots in the Scope format, while flashback scenes supposedly lifted from The Visit resemble the arguably less cinematic VistaVision. This interesting stylistic choice certainly invites interpretation, as do the period setting and cinephilic references. Still, some viewers may find the film too slight to merit any additional decoding.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.