Nasty Boys:
A Review of Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education

by Tony Phillips

Try to imagine someone you haven’t seen in sixteen years landing on your doorstep looking nothing like the schoolmate you remember as Ignacio, even after he shaves his scraggly beard. To make matters worse, he insists on being called Angel. What stops this visit from going the way of the typical sales call? Casting. Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal plays Ignacio and this fact isn’t lost on his host Enrique (Fele Martínez), who wastes no time getting him into his pool and eventually his bed.

This is the opening of Pedro Almodovar’s latest saga Bad Education, a coming of age tale bouncing with Wimbledon-like volley from 1964 to 1980 Spain. The earlier years find a pair Catholic School boys wrenched apart by their predatory principal, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The later years find Enrique, the boy who was expelled, living the life of a successful, out film director. Ignacio is the boy who was left behind who shows up on Enrique’s doorstep toting a manuscript called The Visit detailing their shared childhood abuse.

Enrique, who’s scouring the tabloids for story ideas when we first meet him, likes The Visit. His taste for the project may speak more to his hitting the wall for inspiration than for the quality of the story, but he likes it enough to entertain Ignacio’s idea of playing Zahara, the transsexual prostitute who blackmails Father Manolo in the story.

And therein lies Bad Education’s stacked Achilles’ heel. With Bernal attempting the film’s only major female role, much of what succeeds in most Almodovar is missing. While Bernal up in drags is interesting (think a more ducklike Julia Roberts) and the star of Almodovar’s last outing, Javier Camara, more than settles the score for his odious character in Talk to Her by turning in a bang-up portrayal of the drug-gobbling trannie Paquito, the rest of it is slight on what makes Almodovar Almodovar.

Sure, it’s a clever construction. When Enrique first reads The Visit, it’s acted out with all the film within a film panache we’ve come to expect from the Spanish auteur. In addition to Ignacio and Zahara, Bernal is given a third role to sink his perfect white teeth into and he does so with gusto. There’s even a whole other actor (Francisco Boira) playing Ignacio and events we thought we understood are spit back by other characters Rashomon style.

So what’s the problem? It’s the twice-Oscared Almodovar continuing to poke around in the buddy picture, no matter how many blowjobs are involved. It was painful enough watching Talk to Her’s women dispatched to comas. Here, they don’t even exist outside a gaffer-taped facsimile. Why bother to rehabilitate the melodrama at all if you’re only going to leave all those gorgeous creations — Rossy de Palma, Victoria Abril, Veronica Forque, Marisa Paredes — stranded by the roadside? What’s next, a Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan movie?