indieWIRE REVIEW: Almodóvar's "Bad Education": Men Behaving Badly
by Michael Koresky (with responses from Jeff Reichert and Cecilia Sayad)
[EDITORS NOTE: Today, indieWIRE is launching a new weekly review column, set to run at least through the end of 2004. Weekly reviews, published on Tuesdays, will be written by critics from "Reverse Shot," an independent film journal from a talented group of film reviewers. Each critical piece will be followed by two responses from other "Reverse Shot" writers.]
Pedro Almodóvar has reached such a synthesis of craft, visual invention, and emotional acuity that it's very likely that many will willfully overlook the cavernous void at the heart of his strikingly ambitious "Bad Education," receiving its U.S. release this week. It's a delicate, squishy layer cake; and its ultimately alienating facet is that its tension is not based upon narrative flow, character revelations, or even sexual politics but rather its audience's ability to decipher where its artificiality ends and its authenticity begins. Watching it the first time, I was thrilled by the director's mischief, his ability to keep me on my toes while constantly pulling out the rug from under me; he discombobulates the viewer effectively, yet his endless hall of mirrors finally reflects nothing much recognizable beyond the usual trinkets and fetishes. By exorcising his own boyhood demons within a narrative of such complex metacinematic trickery, Almodóvar manages to even question the merits of autobiography itself.
The inciting event in the film, supposedly based on his own experiences as a young boy at Catholic school, occurs when a corrupt, molesting priest, Father Manolo, separates young boys Ignacio and Enrique, each the other's first awkward pre-teen love. From this springs upward the film's trembling house of cards: years later, in Madrid circa 1980, a young man (Gael García Bernal) claiming to be Ignacio stumbles into the office of film director Enrique (Fele Martínez), hoping that he will adapt a story he has just written, entitled "The Visit," based upon their experiences as children and featuring the character of Zahara (Bernal, also), a transvestite seeking revenge on Manolo. From there, "Bad Education" digresses into the film-within-the-film, and then to the flashback within that film to the boys' childhood, which could be from the point of view of Manolo himself. Therefore, is the flashback truly contained within the world of the main narrative or is it a double fiction within "The Visit"? Is it Almodóvar's memories or his alter ego Enrique's? or Ignacio's? or Father Manolo's?
All of the Almodóvar elements are in place, and the surface pleasures are many: the waggish playing with aspect ratios to denote different narrative plateaux, Bernal's stunning mechanized stage performance as the bosomed and sequined Zahara, the heart-thumping strings of Alberto Iglesias' triumphant, Bernard Herrmann-esque score, the panning back to reveal the grand movie set after the shooting of a key scene in "The Visit," only to discover the façade of a motel that will be used in a later scene of the 'real' narrative. Like Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale" (a far more sumptuous and rich subversion of genre), everything in the film is a construct yet so elemental that it seems to hearken back to the site of its director's very conception. And Almodóvar has his own femme fatale, Gael García Bernal, here the most feminized in a world seemingly populated only by men, similarly trammeled by a web of ambiguous realities. Yet the guessing-game concept of "Bad Education" is dubious; once we discover that the central figure of the film could be an impostor, the whole endeavor becomes rather hollowly theoretical.
While Almodóvar's mise-en-scène is as sophisticated as ever, with its strange compositional composure juxtaposed to its boldly outrageous décor, there's perhaps too much madness to his method. With one constructed reality piled upon another with increasing fascination and simultaneously dwindling emotional reimbursement, the film finally shows desire itself as manufactured. And though it's wonderful to see the outré anything-goes sexual dalliances of Pedro's early years making a welcome return, never have his erotic scenes seemed more patently false or boxed in to such overt psychologies. The director's wondrous prior film, "Talk to Her," found the beautiful in the grotesque by letting the images wash over you in an untainted flood of emotion. Its beguiling silent movie centerpiece, "Shrinking Lover," functioned as a microcosm of the narrative, opening it up to all sorts of grandiose implications on human connection. In the case of "Bad Education," the digressions simply overwhelm; the more it expands out into various concentric patterns, the more hermetic and constricted the film becomes, finally ending on a rather solipsistic auteur's note.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment. He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, Rescue, and Westchester Journal News.]
by Jeff Reichert
As shiny and perfect (some would argue emotional as well) as "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her" were, this viewer couldn't shake the feeling that in both films Pedro Almodóvar had somehow lost his way while contorting himself to tie their myriad narrative strands together. All the talk of "maturity" that surrounded the releases of both left me unconvinced and wondering if this implied, or explained, their innate stodginess. So then what does Almodóvar's latest, the somewhat autobiographical, NYFF-feted "Bad Education" amount to? Probably not as much as its overly complicated narrative scaffolding would indicate, but who cares, especially when the results are this enjoyable? "Education" is meta- and arch, and it doesn't really make much sense in the end, but Almodóvar may be second only to De Palma (though "Education" is no "Femme Fatale") in his ability to turn this kind of heady mix into worthwhile -- dare I say -- entertainment.
From the first swell of Herrmann-esque strings at the open, we're in Almodóvar's court, and if he wants to treat us to Gael in drag, a priest swooning over a beatific young boy crooning "Moon River," adolescent movie theater groping, relay this all in the context of a film within the film that calls the 'reality' of everything we're watching into question, and call it vaguely autobiographical, then by all means. Maybe the greatness of a filmmaker can be defined by the recognition of limits, knowing when the sense of art direction and narrative play is stronger than the desire to rework the grand themes, and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe "Bad Education" is minor, but looking back on it years from now perhaps we'll find it says more about Almodóvar as a filmmaker than other, more lauded works.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]
by Cecilia Sayad
"Personal" films call for adjectives such as emotional, touching, sincere, frank, authentic -- all associated with the belief that the artist's urgent desire for expression grants us with immediate access to his intimacy. Given that, the supposed autobiographical elements in "Bad Education" elicit audience expectations of some close proximity with Almodóvar. Yet how to detect the presence of such elements? Are they to be found in narratives that are straightforward, linear, and therefore stripped from the display of craftsmanship that some believe would distract us from a presumed content, or message? "Bad Education's" film-within-a-film structure may aim at setting us apart from this expressive artist who supposedly confides in us by opening up the dark secrets of his childhood.
Almodóvar once told The Guardian that his mother used to read letters for the illiterate in Spain. Presuming what the recipients would wish to hear, she often altered the content of these letters in order to please these people. From such generous lies, Almodóvar claimed to have learned that "reality sometimes needs a dash of fiction to work better." It follows that the claim that authenticity gets lost in "Bad Education" -- probably one of Almodóvar's most accomplished exercises in style -- raises the question of whether the distinction between authenticity and artificiality is something to even seek -- especially in his work. After all, what do artists do if not translate authentic expression into artifice? The many narrative layers that the director creates distance us from the biographical events, multiplying the levels of fictitiousness to the point of disallowing a distinction between fact and invention. Almodóvar has always been the king of intertextual references and formal exuberance. The authenticity of his work lies in the consistency in style and themes displayed in his exemplary oeuvre. In other words, Almodóvar's essence lies in surface.
[ Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, REVERSE SHOT is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. REVERSE SHOT'S unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor- mortised. ]
[Cecilia Sayad is a film critic who currently writes for Brazilian online magazine Tropico. She has written for Brazilian newspapers Folha de S. Paulo and Jornal do Brasil, Film Comment and Reverse Shot. She is also a Cinema Studies PhD candidate at New York University.]