Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-Three


#33 — Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar, 2004)

Pedro Almodovar is one of those directors that rewards those who make their film-going selections on the basis of adherence to the auteur theory. Not every Almodovar film is exceptional, but every one is interesting in a way that is distinctively belongs to him. The characters are drawn just a bit more sharply, the colors pop in different way, the emotional and psychological dilemmas onscreen are are rendered with a fierce vividness. Almodovar always remains true to the characters that he develops, but he also crafts a world that is a little wilder and more daring than our own, a world that demonstrates it’s not necessary to dip into the realm of fantasy to create something fantastical. A story and a film can be grounded and still feel almost otherworldly in its restless inventiveness. And it can all be presented in such a way that the entirely of it feels like a brilliant embellishment.

One of the pleasures of Bad Education is that Almodovar seems to be commenting on just those qualities, examining the truthful fictions and imaginative honesty that he regularly builds into his work. The film involves a filmmaker, a successful Spanish director who is unexpected visited by a childhood friend. This distant compatriot, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, does not arrive purely with a nostalgic visit in mind. He is an actor and comes bearing a story that he thinks will be perfect as a film, and will provide him with an opportunity to perform in a serious, prominent role. The pages bear a tale of woe from their shared boyhood involving molestation at the hands of a Catholic priest. Compelled, the director, played by Fele Martinez, agrees to adapt it into a screenplay, and from there the film examines the slippery nature of history, biography and identity itself.

Almodovar tackles his own intricate script with incredible discipline, his bold, headlong habits tempered with the overarching need to get this right. The story is too complex to proceed rashly. It moves back in forth in time, offering flashbacks to the bygone, damaged childhood, while also telling stories within the story, creating films within the film. There are plentiful layers and its properly difficult to sort out where the borders exist, where things overlap, which layer is concealing which. Almodovar presents an ongoing query about truthfulness. Does the veracity of a story matter, or is its impact key? How much can the means be distorted to achieve the desired end, and still having meaning? What’s more, if the distortions are built on, even represent, fundamental, important, recognizable truths, how much does the fact that they’re distortions really matter? It’s a dizzying array of concepts and questions, and Almodovar takes the time to offer them all some thoughtful consideration. He sacrifices none of his formidable showmanship, but cuts deep into the emotions and intellect of his story.

All this heady commentary shouldn’t imply that the mechanics of the filmmaking, the more concrete bits and pieces of assembling a movie, are flat or secondary. The movie is fully alive with the artistry of its construction. Almodovar finds smart, striking ways to signal the shifts in his storytelling, the movement through time, the immersion in a new twist of the tricky tale. A major theme of the film is that storytelling itself is a form of seduction, and Almodovar understands the importance of approaching the assembly of his work with a commitment to the final product being alluring in every way, from the shimmering visuals to the almost tactile potency of the performances. Bernal is especially stellar, and not just because Almodovar’s camera is so enraptured by his physical beauty that it practically leans into him, pressing in with the hope of catching the thumping syncopation of his heartbeat. By necessity, Bernal carries and conveys the film’s complexities in the fabric of his performance. At times it feels as though he is called upon to do everything that a movie could ever expect of an actor–quizzical ambition, shattered fearfulness and sexy enticement, scenes of high emotion and sly comedy–and he manages to do it all very, very well. In a way, the craftiness of this performance becomes another puzzle to solve, another fiction to untangle. Naturally, it’s a perfect fit for Almodovar’s, just another perfectly realized component that also seems to be commenting on itself.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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