Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Bad Education’: Abusive priests, transvestites and cinema

The less you know about Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education, the better. Don’t even go through the credits list. And this is why I’ve elected to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. I went into the film knowing nothing about it, other than the fact it’s about a young gay man Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal) coming back to blackmail a priest who had sexually abused him as a child.

And then there is a filmmaker, Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez) who is currently experiencing a writer’s block. He is hungrily sifting through the tabloids one morning in the hope of finding a potential jumping off point for his next script. That’s when Bernal drops in. He is a childhood friend and we learn that they both studied at the same Catholic school – where the priest taught – and shared a “history”. He has written a manuscript which is part autobiography and part fiction. “It’s based on our childhood”, tells Ignacio.

Oh, and Ignacio happens to be a struggling actor. He hopes Enrique will let him play the main character, a transvestite called Zahara, and he is willing to do anything for it; even lose weight “like De Niro”. As Enrique reads the manuscript, titled “The Visit”, we are presented with a movie within a movie – this “history” which was referred to earlier. This priest, a Father Manolo, was a literature professor, and during one of the children’s excursions, he had attempted to abuse Ignacio. It doesn’t stop there.

Ignacio strikes a friendship with another boy, this Enrique fellow, who also happens to be gay. One thing leads to another and they end up jerking each other off at a movie theater. But Fr. Manolo, like an extremely jealous and possessive third lover, comes in between and breaks them apart. Ignacio had promised the Father some “favors” for him in exchange for not expelling Enrique. The Father accepts this but expels Enrique regardless. This devastates Ignacio and he makes up his mind to pay him back some day.

Everything leading up to this point gives the film the appearance of an ordinary drama. It’s after the 60-min mark that it becomes something else – a delightful Hitchcockian mystery. Yes, the story is very much about Ignacio but it could also be about someone else. Nothing is what it seems. Almodovar takes us through an intricately layered narrative consisting of movies within movies and unexpected twists in the form of backstories. Although tt might look confusing at first, there’s so much fun to be had in putting all the pieces together as the story slowly unravels.

We are fed something at the very beginning, expected to visualize everything in a certain way, but then something else comes along the way which reminds us that real life differs slightly from the movies. Bad Education is as much a film about filmmaking as it is about pedophiles, homosexuality, and revenge. There are strong noir elements, especially in the second half. At one point, a character emerges out of a movie theater conducting a Noir Film Festival remarking that all those films remind them of what they’ve just done. Only here, the femme fatales are played by men.

There are the usual Almodovar trademarks here too: dark humor, bright colors, campy characters, stylish editing and shifting resolutions. Apparently, Almodovar had incorporated elements from his own life – he worked on this film for 10 years. But according to him, even though his education was at a Catholic school, he was never abused. Bernal once again reminded me why I respect him so much as an actor. Bernal has given such an incredibly bold performance. There are scenes of strong gay sex and this explains the film’s NC-17 rating (although an R-rating would’ve sufficed).

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