Rating: ★★★★½ out of 5
It takes a highly nuanced approach to filmmaking and scriptwriting to create characters that are 1) enigmatic, 2) easy to identify with, and 3) ever-changing. There are many films that attempt it, but few do so as genuinely and effectively as Pedro Almodóvar’s 2004 drama film, Bad Education. In this film, not only are we made to feel for these characters, to identify with them, or at the very least, sympathize with their plight, but we are also forced to constantly reevaluate them. Our perceptions of the characters change, and even our perceptions of the film itself, and our understanding of how the story is being told, changes as the plot progresses. Almodóvar constantly draws our attention to how he tells his story, how he wants the story to be perceived. Of course, this is not unique to Bad Education, nor is it unique to Almodóvar’s body of work. Many other films and filmmakers have taken similar approaches to story telling, insofar as they focus our attention on style as much as they do story. For example, the neurotic and rearranged timeline in Pulp Fiction (1994), or the story within a story in Adaptation (2002) almost go so far as to overshadow the stories being told for the sake of style. Both of these rather jarring techniques are put to similar use in Bad Education.
The story begins in Madrid in 1980, with Enrique, a filmmaker who is in the middle of a creative crisis; he can’t find compelling material for his next film, and he is desperate for any kind of artistic motivation. We watch him cutting out bizarre stories from the newspaper, hoping that each one will serve as the basis for his next script. As he struggles for inspiration, an unexpected visitor knocks on his door. It is a man who claims to have known Enrique from their time together at a Catholic boarding school. His name was Ignacio, but he now goes by his stage name, Angel. Angel is an actor, desperate for a role in Enrique’s next movie. He also comes bearing a script titled “The Visit,” which he gives to Enrique as a kind of final plea to be taken seriously. He explains to Enrique that the script is based on their time together at the boarding school. Enrique rushes Angel out the door, telling his assistant that he used to love Angel (when he was Ignacio), but that he wanted to be rid of him, because desperate actors are a complete turnoff.
As Enrique reads the script, we are transported back to 1977. We meet Zahara, a transsexual performer, whose birth name was Ignacio. She wants to confront Father Manolo, the Catholic priest who abused her at the boarding school. Zahara hands Father Manolo a script for “The Visit,” allowing him to read about his past transgressions. From here, we are once again transported back in time to 1964, to the all-boys boarding school where Ignacio and Enrique fell in love. Father Manolo becomes infatuated with Ignacio, and, in one particularly powerful sequence, forces a squeamish and uncomfortable Ignacio to sing “Moon River” before molesting him. When the priest discovers Ignacio’s love for Enrique, he expels Enrique from the school, so that he may have Ignacio all to himself. The plot continues down a rabbit hole of deceit and misperception, sometimes between the characters, and sometimes between the filmmaker and the audience.
Bad Education has a complex, winding story that never allows the audience to feel confident in the identities and motives of the various characters. At times, we feel sympathy for individuals, and later we realize that they have been lying, and are not at all the people that we imagined them to be. Alternatively, even some of the most insidious characters in the film elicit some sympathy by the time the credits roll. It is, in a sense, a story about perception, about how our perceptions of people change over the years, and how our perceptions can even change in a fraction of a second, whether by virtue of the characters’ actions or circumstances of the plot. But, as much as it is a story of perception, it is also a story of lost love, lost youth, and betrayal. One might think that such a film could become overly sentimental, artlessly forcing the audience to endure the emotional hardships written into the script, but it never does. Almadovor has developed a keen sense of how far to push the audience’s emotions without coming across as disingenuous or cloying. This is particularly true with the way in which Zahara’s character is portrayed. Though the grown up Zahara (formerly Ignacio) is given very little screen time, much of the second half of the film revolves around her plight as a preoperative transsexual, in need of money for surgeries and rehabilitation from her drug addiction. Her character, having been abused and thrust to the outskirts of society, is one of the most sympathetic in the entire film. She lives her life alone, desperately trying to get her life back on track and get in contact with her former love, Enrique.
In typical Almodóvar style, the sets are often simplistic, with bright, neon colors bringing life to otherwise humble décor. Each shot looks meticulously crafted, with visually striking sequences, and highly stylized, but nonetheless balanced mis-en-scene. Almodovar puts particular emphasis on the male form, often hesitating on various bodies, forcing the audience to identify with the voyeur and observe the love, lust, and obsession taking place on screen.
Bad Education is a film that will not leave your mind quickly, and is equal parts pain and beauty. It is very much a film for filmmakers, but not so much that it takes away from the enjoyment. Some films are so self-referential and “meta” as to be distracting and even tedious, but Bad Education never suffers from it. The characters are beautifully portrayed, the story brilliantly crafted, and the images visceral and moving, from start to finish.
Bad Education is currently available to stream on Hulu.