I'm just going to be blunt: If you don't yet have a relationship with the films of Pedro Almodóvar, get your head out of your ass and start one. Luckily for you, there's not a better time to do so than this weekend which brings to movie theaters in New York and LA his latest, Bad Education starring Gael García Bernal. I saw the film at the New York Film Festival last month and it instantly hit my best-of-year list.
Like all his films, Almodóvar is somewhat of an acquired taste. He creates worlds that lie somewhere between reality and fantasy. I like to call them a type of stylized hyperreality. They are an amazing blend of satire and heartfelt drama, filled with humanity and love and understanding for all people no matter how different they may be. At the same time, Almodóvar never hesitates to challenge the audience.
I'll admit that I only recently came to fall in love with Almodóvar's films a few years ago and there are still many I have not seen. I'm sure plenty of people may not even consider Bad Education among his best, but when the credits rolled in Alice Tully Hall the night I saw it, I just sat back in awe. In Bad Education, Almodóvar has created not just his own love letter to movies (albeit a slightly twisted one), but specifically an homage to classic American film noir. From the design of the opening credits and the fantastic score all the way through the end, Almodóvar puts his own twist on the most famous and influential of American movie styles, along with the Western of course. Bad Education is told in a nonlinear style, shifting the timeline of the story all over the place to the point where at the conclusion of the film, one questions exactly what came where and what happened first. But it's these elements, along with the various personalities, hidden identities and who's who of the script, that make it such a joy to watch. Bad Education is a film that makes you thinking while always being fun and enjoyable.
But the film wouldn't be from Almodóvar if it was a straightforward noir, and it's not. Bernal in drag becomes one of the prettiest femmes fatale you'll ever see, and that's saying something. And at the same time as Almodóvar pays homage to the films he loved in his youth – at the Q&A session after the NYFF screening, he mentioned many of the great noirs as influential, particularly Double Indemnity, which is an obvious influence represented in the love triangle and murderous subplot – he also takes on the Catholic church, particularly as represented by the priests who run a school similar to the one Almodóvar attended growing up. Stories of priests and young boys may not be anything new, but the context in which Almodóvar places such a story is.
It would be wrong for me to give away any part of this story by providing even the slimmest of plot summaries. Suffice to say it involves transsexuals, priests, revenge, murder, unrequited love and thirst for fame and fortune. Bad Education is a ton of fun. My only criticism is that it almost seems like Almodóvar couldn't really decide the best way to end the story, so the conclusion feels a little rushed and abrupt. There are so many twists and turns throughout, I'm not sure what he could have done differently. But when the "here's what happened to our characters" captions start to run right before the end credits, I must admit I was briefly disappointed. Only briefly, though, because the culmination of what I had just finished sitting through was enough to make me walk out of the theater excited and smiling at what I had just seen.
Bad Education has all the hallmarks of an Almodóvar film while being different than much of what he has made before. If you've never seen Almodóvar before, get your browser over to Netflix and start renting: the brilliant (and Oscar winner for Best Screenplay) Talk to Her is a very different kind of film, but it's very moving and well-worth your time. A phenomenal story about the power of love and friendship. All About My Mother, Live Flesh, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and his US breakout hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown are all phenomenal films. If you plan to watch Talk to Her, I highly suggest you also rent Law of Desire, featuring a young Antonio Banderas. Here are two films Almodóvar made 15 years apart that deal with some similar themes, yet it's fascinating to see how he has matured as a filmmaker during the decade-and-a-half between films..
Watching Almodóvar should make you fall in love with Almodóvar. He is a filmmaker who takes advantage of the uniqueness of cinema to take advantage of more creative elements than any other art form. His use of color is lush like that of a painter and his scenes and scripts sing with a flow that is musical and poetic. Bad Education is just the latest contribution to this phenomenal body of work created by this incredibly unique filmmaker, and if we're lucky, we’ll be surprised, enthralled and entertained by his films for many years to come.