PASSION: The word fills the screen at the end of Pedro Almodóvar’s deliciously slippery Bad Education as both the cause and effect of everything that’s come before. And come people do. Catholic schoolboy friends Enrique and Ignacio bond and first consummate their love mutually masturbating in a movie theater as 1950s Spanish sexpot Sarita Montiel stares back at them from the screen, a scene of such Almodóvarian conflation of sin and cinema it’s a wonder he’s never used it before. This isn’t Almodóvar’s usual melodramatic romp, though. Where the Spanish naughty boy director would have delighted in the transgression of showing hands on cocks, Almodóvar today is interested in something far more potentially subversive: what happens over the lives of the men the boys become.
In doing so he puts on a dazzling display of stylish storytelling. When we first meet Enrique (Fele Martínez) he’s a successful film director in 1980 Madrid, brainstorming story ideas when in walks the ruffian struggling actor Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), his boyhood crush, though Enrique doesn’t quite recognize him. Ignacio is looking for work—and actually prefers his stage name Ángel—but he also brings a script he’s written based on their school years, The Visit. And Enrique, curious as to which memories Ignacio has mined, takes the script home to read.
From here Almodóvar slides from his story to inner-dramatization of The Visit to flashback to making-of with masterful aplomb, twisting identities and story lines into knotty paisleys. Enrique didn’t know that his expulsion from school was orchestrated by Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who wanted to keep Ignacio all to himself. And in Ángel’s script, Ignacio matures into junky transvestite Zahara seeking revenge.
Enrique is interested in shooting the story, but Ángel will only give him rights if he gets to play Ignacio/Zahara (Bernal in drag looks like a well-nourished Juliette Lewis). Enrique decides to let him, in exchange for some rights to Ángel of his own, just to see how far Ángel will go to be in the film, a line that’s forever being pushed—especially after the defrocked Manolo shows up to disclose who Ángel really is.
Almost flawlessly composed, Bad Education may be Almodóvar’s least moving film because of its unflinching peek at desire and all its sexual, emotional, and psychological needs—and because the melodramatic kernel lurking in the movie’s background never flowers into moralistic satisfaction. That’s because Bad Education is, at its core, about what storytelling conceals and reveals, the secrets and lies that get packaged in people’s truths. And, for once, the truth is as excruciatingly complex and untidily damning as in life.