Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
Bad Education holds a curious place in Pedro Almodóvar’s canon, following as it does the two films that perhaps brought him permanently into the world cinema elite and indebted as it is to film noir. While traits of noir have been present in nearly all of Almodóvar’s films, most notably in his attachment to characters in need of revenge, Bad Education uses noir as its framing device, its characters operating under multiple deceptions at all times and open about their own relationships with noir films from their own youths. What results is a powerful if unfortunately overlooked film (sandwiched as it is between arguably the director’s two most well known films) with an intensely distinct visual style filled with characters who force the viewer to question everything they see.
Bad Education’s story is notoriously difficult to describe due to its reliance on a plot that hinges on Double Indemnity levels of deceit. At its center is the relationship between Ignacio and Enrique (Fele Martínez); Ignacio is the mystery of the film while Enrique is its Marlowe, slowly, desperately unraveling the plot in search of some semblance of truth. Ignacio is represented on three levels- first as the person who enters Enrique’s office claiming to be Ignacio (Gael García Bernal) now going by the name Angel, who then becomes the actor portraying Ignacio as the drag queen Zahara in Enrique’s film of Ignacio’s story and finally beneath it all the true Ignacio (Francisco Boira), a now-dead junkie who had created his own noir-influenced scheme to finance sex reassignment surgery.
In terms of facts, that is perhaps all that can be believed in the story. As children, Ignacio and Enrique had been students at a Catholic school where their literature teacher and headmaster Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) molested the young Ignacio. Manolo had grown to be so attached to Ignacio that he had even expelled Enrique once he discovered a romance was budding between him and Ignacio, a romance fueled by trips to the cinema to watch the noirs of the time and to grope one another. This split between the two is what creates the need for skepticism of all supposed facts that follow, the story from the time being told through the lens of Ignacio’s fictional representation that Enrique adapts.
Enrique has not forgotten Ignacio but when Angel enters his office claiming to be Ignacio, enough time has passed that he has no reason to doubt his claim, setting in motion the heart of the plot. Of course, it does not take long for Enrique to have his doubts but each step he takes towards the truth allows him to get dangerously confident that the answers he’s discovered are the only ones he needs. Almodóvar has stated that Gael Garcia Bernal’s Angel is the femme fatale of the story, playing key parts in every one of the deceptions at play and seducing the key players.
Like almost every Almodóvar film, Bad Education is populated by characters obsessed with identity- identity as status, identity as obstacle, identity as goal. This is also perhaps the greatest tie of the film to true noir. For Angel, identity is naturally fluid, as an actor he has to shift identities with ease, a key line in the film coming when Enrique thinks he has discovered the truth behind Angel, that he is merely Ignacio’s brother, and tells him that he now has more confidence in his acting than ever before. For Enrique, identity is the obstacle he must overcome in all of his films, driven by his need to get at the true identity of his characters, the obvious Almodóvar surrogate. But for Ignacio, identity was a goal, something that had to be obtained through deception and turmoil, often at the cost of the identity of others. It’s because of Ignacio that Father Manolo had to become Mr. Berenguer (Lluis Homar) but even that change in identity can’t keep Ignacio at bay in his pursuit of his new identity. While it’s an operation that Ignacio thinks will bring him to his final identity, the deception and destruction of the obstacles from his past are as important to this as anything going under the scalpel.
Enrique, operating as both Almodóvar and audience surrogate, has to sift through the deceptions and decide which is closest to truth, which holds the most potency. Within the context of Almodóvar’s own films, perhaps it is the fictional account of Ignacio’s plot to get revenge that fits best, with its bittersweet ending and flashy melodrama. But for Enrique the person, perhaps Ignacio’s mother’s self-deception is the most promising, hinging as it does on the belief that Angel is the adult version of what Ignacio should have become, appearing innocent and charming rather than what the true Ignacio wound up being- broken down and selfish. For a time this is the truth Enrique accepts, choosing to ignore what he knows about Angel and allowing himself to buy into the fantasy of what his relationship with Ignacio could have been had things played out differently. But in the end, Enrique can’t ignore what is most likely the closest thing to the actual truth, that Ignacio died because of his own selfishness at the figurative hands of his brother, a truth he only gets to hear because of the desperation of. Berenguer himself, who is in turn pursuing his own version of a truth, refusing to believe Angel had been deceiving him as well.
Where All About My Mother similarly hinged on the way people deceive one another in daily life, albeit in a much less sadistic fashion, Bad Education is more interested in the consequences of all that acting instead of the process itself, a complicated process Talk to Her had hinted at. It’s possible, then, to view All About My Mother as the optimistic other half to Bad Education’s mostly bleak outlook. All About My Mother treats the acting process as a necessary deception, innocent and often beautiful, a key component of survival itself while Bad Education chooses to view acting for survival as a process that’s often just as if not more brutal than hunting and devouring prey though still just as necessary. Even the visual style of Bad Education shifts between these extremes, with brightly colored sets and costume design given to more playful aspects of acting, such as Zahara’s performance, while Angel’s seduction of both Enrique and Berenguer are shown in harsh lights, the former all in stark white and with a focus on the contorted faces of the two while the latter is depicted through the dark, grimy grain of 9mm film.
The end result of this divide is that Almodóvar’s viewers must make the same choice as Enrique. They can continue to view acting as an intimate, beautiful process and thus live exclusively in fantasy or they can acknowledge that there is harshness to the deception, even if it’s a deception we buy into as Berenguer and Ignacio’s mother do. This forced awareness grants a certain potency to Bad Education that makes it one of Almodóvar’s most powerful films- immensely complicated and severe but not without beauty, though that beauty comes at a cost.