Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Movie Review: Bad Education

I've always enjoyed the work of Pedro Almodovar, but a few years ago he seemed to make a leap -- from intriguing foreign director to Great Filmmaker -- with the release of All About My Mother and Talk To Her. Prior to those two films, Almodovar was considered a filmmaker of great promise, whose work was often too absurd for anyone to take him seriously as an artist -- his sensibility was a mix of Fellini and Benny Hill. Often, he built films around gags that stumbled across the line of good taste -- most notoriously a "comical" rape scene in Kika.

(By the way, great date film, Kika. Laugh even once during that rape scene -- and Almodovar's really trying to make you laugh -- and the date's over. Kinda like the Deniro/Cybill Shepherd date in Taxi Driver.)

Since All About My Mother, bigger and better things have been expected from Almodovar, and his audience in the U.S. has grown. There was a lot of anticipation behind the newest Almodovar ouvre, La Mala Educacion ("Bad Education" in Ingles), starring the hot latin actor of the moment Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, The Crime of Father Amaro, Y Tu Mama Tambien). Sadly, the movie doesn't quite live up to expectations.

The story in a nutshell: Enrique, an up-and-coming director, is approached by Ignacio (Garcia Bernal), an actor claiming to be a childhood friend. Enrique doesn't recognize the actor, but does recognize a story Ignacio has written, about Ignacio's childhood abuse at the hands of a priest, and his love affair with another student at his all-boys Catholic school -- Enrique.

Naturally, Enrique wants to make a movie out of the story, and we watch this movie-within-a-movie unfold alongside flashbacks, and Enrique's present-day investigation of Ignacio's story. Ultimately, since this is Almodovar's take on film noir, the plot (or plots) turn to blackmail and murder.

To say that Bad Education is a disappointment doesn't mean it's a total failure. There are a few moments of classic Almodovar in the film. An early scene in which Bernal, as a lounge-singing drag queen that looks disturbingly like Julia Roberts, hustles a patron, shows some of the old Almodovar humor. Another haunting scene shows the first encounter between the young Ignacio and his molester, overlaid with shots of grade school age boys playing in a lake, while the Ignacio sings "Moon River" to the priest.

Still, Bad Education gives you relatively little in return for what it puts you through. While some claim that a homophobic MPAA's fear of some fairly graphic male-on-male sex scenes earned the film an NC-17 rating, I'd bet that the implied sexual contact between two children (the young Enrique and Ignacio) had more to do with it.

Still, sex isn't the problem with Bad Education. The real problem is a lack of substance. The film has an interesting premise -- a film noir based on recent church scandals, with a reinvention of the "femme fatale" thrown in for good measure -- a few decent plot twists, and good performances by Garcia Bernal, the child actors who play the young Enrique and Ignacio, and Lluis Homar (who is the spitting image of Kelsey Grammer) as a former priest with a secret.

Still, a noir crime will always leave you empty if you don't care about the victim, the criminal, or the investigator trying to get to the bottom of it all. The film falls apart around the central character of Enrique, Almodovar's filmic alter-ego. Although the text epilogue tells us that Enrique went on to continue making films with passion (and in case you don't get the point, the camera lingers on the word "passion"); the grown-up Enrique comes off as a callous, cynical, cold fish of a guy. You find yourself coming to the end of the movie wondering what, exactly, was the point.


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