The most recent film from Pedro Almodóvar, La mala educación (Bad Education), has drawn accolades for the writer, director and Academy Award recipient. Some have called him Spain's greatest living filmmaker, while others compare him to the late Luis Buñel. Such superlatives and analogies are to be expected by-products of the marketing machine for the latest film by a notorious and successful film auteur, but their tenability rests solely with what we see on screen.
Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is an acclaimed Spanish filmmaker struggling to find ideas for his next film. While cruising the newspapers for inspiration, Enrique receives a visit from Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), a childhood friend and first love, who has become an actor and desperately seeks a part in the director's next film. Before being shown the door, Ignacio leaves a copy of a biographical story based on their youth together in a Catholic boys school.
This 'story' provides an integral plot component for the film allowing Almodóvar to shift between past, fictional past, present and fictional present more smoothly than might be imagined. This story becomes a character in its own right which he fashions -at times- brilliantly. But at other times it directs Almodóvar, making it feel as contrived as one of Enrique's movie ideas culled from the daily newspaper. What follows is a melodrama saturated with love, tragedy, suspense and amorous longing.
Martínez and García Bernal demonstrate impressive flexibility, contributing stellar performances throughout while Daniel Gilménez Cacho, as Padre Manolo, compliments the youths portraying the younger Enrique and Ignacio. Of special note is the Mexican actor García Bernal's (Amores perros) convincing portrayal of several different characters... all believably.
Buñel versus Almodóvar: Buñel excelled at communicating life, passion and repressed desire in subtle and experimental ways. Often bizarre and confrontational, his films consistently challenged mainstream society and filmic conventionality. In comparison Almodóvar is a sledgehammer. Life, passion, desire? Yes, and plenty of it. His successes such as ¡Átame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) come close to rivalling the accomplishments of his greatest predecessor, but La mala educacíon does not.
Given the same material, I suspect that Buñel wouldn't have revealed half as much, but would have achieved much more. How could a love quadrangle incorporating paedophilia, a priest, two brothers and transvestitism -among other things- be conventional? Beats the hell out of me, but there must be a point when the intensity of melodrama loops back around to the 'ho hum-ness' of drama and Almodóvar has found it.
Adam Christopher Snow © 2004