If you want to know what sort of wall Pedro Almodóvar is up against with Bad Education, the answer lies not in the pages of Film Comment, but in the Jan. 5 issue of The Onion, in which a photo of Michael Jackson was accompanied by the headline, "Non-Priest Arrested On Charges Of Child Molestation." With the sticky-fingeredness of clergymen now a satirical given, how can even a clever filmmaker like Almodóvar hope to prove that the subject is still workable as drama?
The solution he hits on is to milk its entertainment value, and the result isn't anywhere near as distasteful or off-putting as that thumbnail characterization might indicate. From its first stabs of Bernard Herrmann-esque strings, Bad Education charts a progressively noirish course as it explores the psychological damage done to two boys whose forbidden love incurred the wrath of a jealous, pedophilic man of the cloth. The film begins straightforwardly enough, with the reunion of old chums Enrique (Fele Martínez) and Ignacio (Gael García Bernal). Once the mutually infatuated residents of a Christian school, they've gone on to follow artistic paths that afford them release from the fear and shame they endured in their youth. Enrique is a successful director of films, while Ignacio is an actor and writer who's penned a fictionalized account of the abuses he and his pal suffered at the hands of their school's predatory principal, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho).
As Enrique reads the short story Ignacio has submitted for his critique, we see the tale of their growth into haunted young men retold as an imagined movie within the movie. Bernal (in a justifiably lauded curveball of a career choice) now appears as a transvestite who has a bitter score to settle with the Manolo character. But which survivor of the padre's depravity does this tranny blackmailer represent? The more of Ignacio's narrative we see dramatized and the more complex his contemporary relationship with Enrique becomes the less certain we are of anyone's true identity at any given time. Almodóvar's twisty plot travels in cycles of betrayal and complicity, just like the elaborate interdependence he assigns to his three key players. (Manolo himself comes to figure in the "true" storyline.)
Though one scene set beside a swimming pool borders on a parody of gay-porn iconography, there's no image in Bad Education quite as outrageous as the walk-in vagina in Almodóvar's Talk to Her (2002). This time, structure and style are the avenues by which the director chooses to express his daring. Rendering child molestation and its aftermath as pulp pursuits raises all sorts of moral red flags, but it proves an efficient method of renewing audience interest in an ever-more-familiar pandemic. Still, one wishes that the director had been a tad less overt about it. At one point, two characters (I won't say which) take time out from their increasingly sinister machinations to attend a noir film festival. A poster for Double Indemnity hangs on the wall as one of the men proclaims that the scenarios of duplicity they've just witnessed fit their own situation to a T. It's the only element of Almodóvar's movie that's thunderingly obvious the only course in this otherwise fine Education that didn't need to be part of the core curriculum.