- Bad Education (2004) movie review: Pedro Almodóvar’s “gay film noir” is one of his most accomplished efforts – and possibly his most subversive as well. Considering provocative Almodóvar fare like Dark Habits, All About My Mother, and Talk to Her, that’s no small feat.
- Gael García Bernal turns in a gutsy characterization as the male equivalent of the potentially deadly vixens played in decades past by the likes of Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth, Joan Bennett, and Lizabeth Scott.
Bad Education movie review: Pedro Almodóvar’s brazenly subversive ‘gay film noir’ is a genre peak
In the 2004 psychological/mystery comedy-drama Bad Education / La mala educación, screenwriter-director Pedro Almodóvar subverts the conventions of the classical film noir genre while rendering one of his most accomplished, most complex, and most daring efforts.
Aiding and abetting Almodóvar in the creation of this inflammatory work are the film’s two male leads, Mexican import Gael García Bernal (sporting a Castilian Spanish accent) and Fele Martínez; its capable supporting cast, particularly Spanish-born Mexican star Daniel Giménez Cacho; and its behind-the-scenes talent, among them cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and composer Alberto Iglesias.
In fact, Bad Education is such quality – and provocative – cinema that it was all but completely bypassed during the 2004–05 awards season in the United States, managing to top only the New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Foreign Language Film category. And though far superior to that year’s five Best Picture Academy Award nominees, it failed to receive a single Oscar nod.
Unorthodox Catholic school lessons
Set in 1980, right around the time Almodóvar himself began writing and directing feature films, Bad Education is centered on Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), a young moviemaker in dire need of inspiration for his next project.
Coincidentally, that’s when Enrique becomes reacquainted with a long-lost schoolfriend, the attractive, mysterious Ignacio – now known as Ángel (Gael García Bernal) – who presents him with a semiautobiographical short story, “The Visit,” hoping it will become the basis for a screenplay.
Mixing reality and fiction, past and present, a series of “flashbacks” reveal that Enrique and Ignacio had been boyfriends (Alberto Ferreiro as Enrique; Nacho Pérez as Ignacio) while attending Catholic boarding school in the mid-1960s.
Another revelation is that one of the school’s priests, the austere but personable Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), had been madly in love with Ignacio, who both looked and sang like an angel. Consumed by jealousy, the priest is resolute in destroying the relationship between the two boys.
Eventually, Enrique decides to make a movie out of Ignacio’s short story. But before all else he must deal with the fact that his first and greatest love is now back in his life.
Or is he?
Obscure object of desire
That final question mark is Bad Education’s key film noir element: Is Ignacio/Ángel who he says he is?
If so, is he the same Ignacio that Enrique had once known and fallen in love with? And how true-to-life is his short story?
Back in the 1940s, the characters played by Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai, and Joseph Cotten in The Third Man would undoubtedly have been able to relate to Enrique’s plight.
The (anti)hero can sense danger. But where’s it emanating from? A purported enemy or the object of desire herself?
On the other hand, Heflin, Mitchum, et al. would likely have been unable to relate to some of the racier goings-on seen in Bad Education.
But no matter, for these are in large part what makes this neo-noir so remarkable: A seductive femme fatale played by a handsome man in drag; some near-explicit gay sex that earned the film an NC-17 rating in the U.S.; a subtle mutual masturbation scene featuring the teens Enrique and Ignacio while watching tormented nun Sara Montiel in the 1961 melodrama Pecado de amor.
Less “scandalous” but no less pivotal is the undiluted portrayal of the ugliness of everyday reality, especially when juxtaposed with the lyricism of memories, fantasies, and the magical universe of cinema.
(It should be noted that Almodóvar, who also attended a Catholic school run by priests, has affirmed that Bad Education isn’t autobiographical.)
Exceptional Gael García Bernal
As mentioned further up, the Bad Education cast is uniformly fine. Yet one can’t deny that Gael García Bernal landed the most difficult and most critical character.
García Bernal became an international name in the early 2000s, following roles in a trio of prestigious, Oscar-nominated Mexican dramas: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, and Carlos Carrera’s The Crime of Father Amaro (as a perverse Catholic priest).
The same year Bad Education came out, he starred as a young, idealized Che Guevara in one of the biggest box office hits of his career, Walter Salles’ awards-season-friendly road movie The Motorcycle Diaries.
In Almodóvar’s neo-noir, García Bernal proved himself not only one of the most versatile actors of the young century but also, at least based on what’s seen on screen, one of the most fearless.
Whether as Ignacio/Ángel or as the main character in “The Visit,” the blonde transvestite Zahara, he’s a compelling presence. For all purposes an actual woman – and an enticing one at that – Zahara never comes across as a humorous caricature à la Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot or Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. To the contrary; notwithstanding her ornate looks and manner, Zahara is to be taken dead seriously.
In addition, García Bernal is one of the players featured in the gay sex scenes that led to Bad Education being slapped with the Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating.
‘Shockingly’ appealing evildoer
Fele Martínez, best known internationally for Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 thriller Open Your Eyes and for the TV series Gran Hotel, is impeccable as the serious-minded young filmmaker, while five-time Ariel Award winner Daniel Giménez Cacho, as a however embellished version of Father Manolo, makes appealing a character most people would find the embodiment of evil.
Well, Pedro Almodóvar is the man responsible for Talk to Her, featuring Javier Cámara as a sympathetic rapist/borderline necrophiliac; Law of Desire, featuring Antonio Banderas as a sympathetic (gay) stalker; Matador, featuring Assumpta Serna as a sympathetic kinky-sex aficionada/serial murderess; and What Have I Done to Deserve This?, featuring Carmen Maura as a sympathetic housewife and mother who, due to financial constraints, allows her young son to go live with his pedophile dentist.
And let’s not forget Dark Habits, featuring Julieta Serrano as its emotional core: A heroin-addicted/-peddling Mother Superior who uses hardcore drugs to seduce vulnerable young women.
Noir & white in color
Finally, one must acknowledge that just as important as those in front of the camera are Pedro Almodóvar’s behind-the-scenes collaborators.
Boasting the stylish, sensuous look and feel that have been the filmmaker’s trademark since the late 1980s, Bad Education is immeasurably helped by the work of composer Alberto Iglesias, art director Antxón Gómez, editor José Salcedo, and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine.
In case praise for Alcaine’s soft but vibrant hues sounds oxymoronic, bear in mind that John M. Stahl’s 1945 Leave Her to Heaven – one of the noirest of all noirs, starring Gene Tierney as one of the fatalest of all femme fatales – was shot in radiant Technicolor.
Reality & fiction as one
Both visually and aurally, Bad Education transports the viewer to a realm where past and present, remembrances and fantasies, movie world and real world are melded to such an extent that the truth – what is, what was, what’s perceived, what’s evoked – is both nowhere and everywhere.
When you think about it, things were so much simpler back in the old film noir days. In the most cryptic exemplars of the genre – e.g., Murder My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Lady from Shanghai, The Third Man – the truth is merely unfathomable. (Mind-boggling on multiple levels, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase is a case apart.)
In Almodóvar’s early 21st-century neo-noir, however, plot intricacies are of secondary importance to the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic touch and to the narrative’s omnipresent ambiguities – psychological, ethical, sexual, sensorial.
The end result is a uniquely personal work that functions as a study of shattered minds; as an indictment against the all too human propensity for cruel and hypocritical behavior; and, just as impressively, as a profound, moving homage to cinema itself.
Bad Education / La mala educación (2004)
Direction & Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar.
Cast: Gael García Bernal. Fele Martínez. Daniel Giménez Cacho. Lluís Homar. Javier Cámara. Nacho Pérez. Raúl García Forneiro. Francisco Boira. Alberto Ferreiro. Francisco Maestre.
Cameos: Leonor Watling. Pedro Almodóvar. Agustín Almodóvar.
“Bad Education Movie (2004) Review” notes
European awards season presence
 Bad Education fared better in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, getting shortlisted for four Goya Awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and five European Film Awards, including Best Film, Director, and Screenplay.
“Bad Education Movie” endnotes
Gael García Bernal and Pedro Almodóvar found themselves at odds with one another during filming. “We almost couldn’t finish [shooting],” the latter would recall. “I didn’t want to continue, because it [was] like bleeding.” García Bernal later claimed they had different conceptions of Ángel’s “inner transvestite.”
Gael García Bernal Bad Education movie images: Sony Pictures Classics.
“Bad Education Movie (2004): Almodóvar’s Splendidly Subversive ‘Gay Film Noir’” last updated in September 2021.