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In the early 60s, two boys - Ignacio and Enrique - discover love, movies and fear in a Christian school. Father Manolo, the school principal and Literature teacher, both witnesses and takes part in these discoveries. The three characters come against one another twice again, in the late 70s and in 1980. These meetings are set to change the life and death of some of them. Written by
This is a difficult film to write about. For one thing, to describe the plot would be to give away the twists and thus spoil its surprises; but for another, it's impossible to take a great work of art and put it into words. That said, here goes:
Truth be told, it was the promise of Gael Garcia Bernal (whom I've loved since "Y Tu Mama Tambien") in drag that piqued my interest in seeing "Bad Education." The only other Almodovar movie I'd seen before this was "Talk to Her," which I was on the fence about, but if Gael Garcia Bernal was involved, I was happy to give Almodovar another shot. (Interestingly, "Bad Education" has given me a new appreciation of "Talk to Her." The two films share a lot of themes -- false identity and self-creation, the willful self-deception and fantasy of falling in love, the spiritualization of aesthetic beauty -- not to mention a hypnotic use of music, an indifferent attitude towards women, and a few actors I recognized.)
Almodovar's genius in both "Bad Education" and "Talk to Her" is his ability to set the scene, stringing the audience along, lulling it into a sense of comprehension and security, and then suddenly turning the tables with a twist of such dizzying magnitude that the mind, reeling, forced to give up on trying to understand, must just relax and allow the movie to take over -- miraculously, all without leaving the audience feeling manipulated. In "Bad Education," he takes this device to breathless, upper-atmospherical levels, for with each twist, the film takes on a new genre.
It begins as a tender coming-of-age story, interspersed with boarding-school flashbacks reminiscent of such French fare as Louis Malle's "Au revoir, les enfants" and François Truffaut's "L'argent de pôche," although I sensed a lot of Fellini in the mod outfits, feathery hairstyles, and picturesque bicycle-strewn streets. Probably the most romantic segment of the film, it alludes even to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (Henry Mancini's "Moon River" hasn't been employed so creatively since last year's "Angels in America"). Indeed, the performances are so endearing, the cinematography so warm and luminous, that this segment of "Bad Education" could easily exist as its own self-contained movie. I was fully prepared to embrace it and love it as a sincere period romance.
But without warning, the film turns itself upside down and becomes an exhilarating meta-commentary in the vein of Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" (complete with crocodiles). Romance turns to farce and tragedy to comedy as the self-consciously cinematic style gives way to the silliness of a movie-within-a-movie.
Unlike "Adaptation," though, "Bad Education" goes on, and in this way it retains its heart and soul. Further twists are introduced, and the movie metamorphoses into a mystery, a thriller, a dark rain-soaked noir -- by the end, I felt as though I had just lived through a hundred years of cinema history, all condensed into less than two rich, glorious hours.
So what holds it all together? The answer is Gael Garcia Bernal. He is a true movie star -- divinely beautiful, dazzlingly charismatic, with that all-important aura of mystery -- and though he virtually plays five characters as his character transforms along with the film, his strikingly calm blue-green eyes and sensual mouth provide a steady center for the madness around him. Despite the rumors of his abusive treatment on set at the hands of Almodovar, Garcia Bernal has a dignity (without which "Bad Education" would collapse under the weight of its own intelligence) that no amount of makeup, wigs, dresses, induced anorexia, or fake Spanish lisping can mask.
"Bad Education" was one of the most intense movie-going experiences I've ever had, and if its future doesn't hold critical acclaim and recognition as a classic, then there's no justice in the world.
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