With 1997's delirious Live Flesh serving as a blurry line of demarcation, Pedro Almodóvar's career splits off into two distinct and only slightly overlapping sections: the early years, typified by brazen, kinky, colorful romps like Law Of Desire and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, and the recent swell of mature, controlled, almost stately melodramas like All About My Mother and Talk To Her. It seemed only a matter of time before the two periods would come together, so it isn't a surprise that Bad Education, a provocative noir on sex and Catholicism, also represents Almodóvar's most explicitly personal film to date. After germinating for years, the project has come out a little overripe, clogged with more themes, episodes, and digressions than one movie can bear. But it's still a vital, emotionally charged statement of purpose, revisiting the past with conflicted feelings of pain and nostalgia.
With a movie-movie narrative that continually pulls the curtain between reality and fiction, Bad Education begins in 1980 Madrid, where popular gay film director (and Almodóvar surrogate) Fele Martínez is visited by a childhood friend, struggling actor Gael García Bernal, who gives Martínez a short story recounting their traumatic experience at a strict Catholic school. While exploring their nascent sexuality together, they were forced apart by a jealous priest (Daniel Giménez Cacho) enchanted by the young Bernal. After reading the story, Martínez agrees to adapt it into his next feature and cast Bernal in the lead role, but the complete picture turns out to be far more complex and dangerous, wrapped up in alternate identities, blackmail, and murder.
It takes some work to parse out the truth from Almodóvar's intricate layers of unreality, since entire sections are dictated by a character who deliberately fudges the details. Once the story finally straightens out, Almodóvar has pulled out the rug so many times that the tragic significance of all this deception doesn't register right away. At its heart, Bad Education conveys the agony of growing up gay in General Franco's Spain, and the oppressive impact that period had on people who couldn't conform to their proscribed identities. Though he adopts the dark shadings of film noir, Almodóvar partially resists the genre's grim spirit by extending compassion to all his characters, including the pedophilic priest, who's both predatory and tragic in his helpless connection to a young altar boy. In accounting for Almodóvar's identity as an artist and a man, Bad Education comes together like a bold and far-reaching summation of his career to date.