From the opening strains of its Bernard Herrman-like score to the evocative pulp style of its title sequence (Saul Bass would be proud), Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education makes its film noir intentions clear from the get-go. It’s an odd fit, to be sure. The celebrated Spanish filmmaker is best known for his garish color palette, flamboyant melodramas and campy sense of humor — not moody lighting, tales of dark intrigue and seedy underworld characters.
It seems, however, that Almodóvar is interested in shaking things up lately. With his last few films, especially All About My Mother and Talk to Her, the writer-director has shown remarkable maturity in his style and subject matter. His trademark soap opera flourishes are still on display, but so are genuine moments of human emotion and sincerity. Both films embraced their complex and tragic characters with honesty and, amazingly enough, restraint.
His latest film is both a step forward … and a step back.
Set in the 1980s, this convoluted, semiautobiographical, highly homoerotic film features pouting hunk Gael García Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries, Y Tu Mama Tambien) as the “femme fatale,” Ignacio. A struggling actor looking for work, Ignacio visits his old parochial school chum, Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), a filmmaker who specializes in gay drama. As children, the two shared a budding romance that was thwarted by a pedophile priest. Ignacio has written a story based on their experience with hopes of playing the film’s lead, a drag queen named Zahara. From here the line between reality and fiction gets slippery and the plot takes more than a few unexpected turns.
Not unlike the work of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Bad Education presents an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of identity and florid sexual desire. Weaving an elaborate skein of deception, blackmail and murder, Almodóvar clearly hopes to emulate the fatalistic melodrama of Double Indemnity (his references to the film are hardly subtle) while getting in a few gleeful jabs at Catholic hypocrisy and Franco-era repression. It’s an absorbing story that bubbles with unexpected plot twists, character reversals and devilishly sensual images.
The movie stumbles, however, with Almodóvar’s more personal indulgences. The protracted flashbacks of Ignacio and Enrique’s school days, while expertly handled, sit uncomfortably alongside the film’s switchbacks of narrative misdirection. It loses momentum during these sequences and the carefully constructed noir elements unravel.
Also problematic is the lack of emotional heart. Despite Bad Education’s melodramatic contortions, its characters are a chilly lot. It’s hard to connect with either Ignacio or Enrique because both are rendered as guarded and inscrutable. This undermines much of the film’s tension and suspense. Without someone to identify with, the audience is left to witness rather than experience the elaborate plot revelations. This is surprising, given the director’s typically ebullient fondness for his characters. Maybe it’s the nearly complete absence of women, another first for the filmmaker, that has left the film starving for sentiment.
Still, there’s much to enjoy; this is Pedro Almodóvar, after all. The characters are colorfully shallow, the dialogue is witty and the story-within-a-story plot twists catch you off guard. Each narrative twist challenges assumptions about what and whom you’ve seen in earlier scenes. It’s nice to watch a film that takes for granted the viewer’s intelligence and requires your complete attention.
As with most of his films, the cast is terrific. Particularly outstanding is Gael García Bernal, as both Ignacio and the surprisingly sexy Zahara. Bernal is quickly becoming the Johnny Depp of foreign cinema. Not content to rely on his pretty-boy looks, he embraces unexpected roles with conviction and intelligence.
Bad Education, like much of the Coen brothers’ work, is primarily about cinema as its own reality. Even if its noir aspirations don’t always succeed, the film’s ambitions affirm Almodóvar’s commitment to his art. He is that rare creature in cinema: a director who constantly challenges himself as an artist. And like any true artist, his love for his medium is contagious.
In Spanish with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Showing at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 4 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 4-6 and Feb. 11-13. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.