Once something of a reckless, diabolically comic voice, Pedro Almodóvar has since entered middle age asking fairly standard questions about personal history, death, and sex, favoring the warmth of alternative-family values over any sort of genuinely transgressive material. Even Talk to Her‘s coma-philia occurred discreetly off-screen; would the fire-brand troublemaking of Matador or Law of Desire be tolerated by today’s festival market?
Simultaneously his safest, gayest, and most Fassbinderian movie to date, Bad Education is bald noir melodrama, a Mildred Pierce for trannies, tricked up with overlapping narratives and haunted by Catholic-school seaminess. The past everyone recalls all too well revolves around a Franco-era priest’s unrequited love for a young boy named Ignacio; the present involves the lad’s radiant reappearance as Gael García Bernal, a struggling actor and karaoke drag queen with an autobiographical story he thrusts upon Enrique (Fele Martínez), his smitten schoolmate now grown into a hotshot director. (This tale—The Visit, with no thanks to Dürrenmatt—appears within itself as an extortive threat the grown, bewigged Ignacio character presses on the guilty pastor.) Just as the backstory comes at us filtered through Ignacio’s “creative nonfiction,” the present remains open to question—Ignacio himself may not be the boy Enrique remembers, but only after the film-within-a-film is in front of the cameras (cleverly using the same actors from the subjective flashbacks) does the “real” priest emerge from the shadows and take us back again.
Quoting rather tiredly from Vertigo (among other beloved wellsprings), Almodóvar’s movie is as mad for its own structural semi-transparencies, folding over each other and then wispily disappearing, as it is for cabaret camp. But there’s something dull and evasive at the film’s center—for one thing, contrary to its festival buzz, Bad Education tiptoes around the issue of priesthood pedophilia; lovelorn gazes are as desperate as it gets. (When The Visit‘s priest discovers Enrique and Ignacio loitering in the bathroom at night, he sends one to bed and makes the other say Mass with him.) Without the impact of abuse, the grown characters’ bitter neuroses are merely gestures at plot-making. Visually, Bad Education‘s only impressive set piece is the dynamic, Saul Bass-esque opening credits. (Unless you decide to count García Bernal as a special effect, in and out of heels.) Almodóvar has a ball fetishizing cross-dressing performance at length, but there’s no attempt to plumb the chintzy, mock-sexual notion of showbiz “glamour” that fuels it.
Of course, duplicity in all its forms is the movie’s cri de coeur and the masking of identity its pervasive trope. But Bad Education still manages to be fairly predictable, its contrivances and its insistent evocations of noir tradition illustrating only how much more comfortable Almodóvar is with one-eyed lust than with moral ambiguity. Hardly a social or even anti-clerical critique, the movie seems to blame the crimes of the present on the sins of the past, but the connections never get fleshed out. For all of the recycled sturm und drang around a fourth-act murder, the soup rarely reaches a boil—an offhand news story mentioned by Enrique, about a dead driver plowing straight across flatlands for miles while police try to stop the car, easily distracts us from the movie we’re watching with a movie that might’ve been.