Bad Education, the new film by the flamboyant Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, opens on a man sitting at a table, poring over the tabloids for stories of interest. When he finds something he likes, he reads it to his lover: Isn't this an arresting image? Could we generate drama from this? The apartment is quintessential Almodóvar, awash in bright, saturated colors cut by modern lines; it's precisely the kind of place where the director might live, mining the headlines for kernels of plot. So what's this, a film about a film director? Indeed. The man at the table, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), is precisely that, caught in a “creative crisis.” He has no stories. He needs to find one.
Yes, we're in a movie about a movie, which Almodóvar addresses with his usual strengths — zest, humor, and sharp visual beauty — as well as his weaknesses, including the failure to acknowledge the gravity of his subject. He presents Bad Education as noir, but the material knows better, persisting in emotional depth despite the stylized trappings foisted upon it. Bad Education begins as comedy, morphs into drama, and only belatedly introduces the noir requisites of subterfuge, cunning, and death — none of which, by that time, is necessary or even welcome. There is a great deal of life in this movie, and also promise, but its creepy ending betrays its sincere and painful core.
Goded does get his story, but not from the tabloids. Instead, it comes from “Angel” (Gael García Bernal), formerly known as Ignacio, an actor who once attended school with Goded. He shows up with a manuscript for a short story called “The Visit,” and asks for a part. In particular, he wants to play Zahara (also formerly known as Ignacio), a transsexual who “defines herself as a mix of desert, hazard, and cafeteria.” Goded, intrigued by his old friend, reads the story and finds Angel too masculine for that role. He wants Angel to play Enrique, a character based on Goded — since, by the way, the short story tells the tale of the two men as boys, at school, where they fell in love.
Confused? You're supposed to be. Almodóvar delights in further confounding us by dramatizing “The Visit” as Goded reads it for the first time, with Angel in the role of Zahara, portraying her confrontation with the priest who once molested her (“him” at the time). In other words, by the time Angel (formerly Ignacio) asks for the role of Zahara (formerly Ignacio) and Goded denies him, we have already seen Angel playing it, for some time, in what looks like a dramatization of the story as it runs in Goded's imagination. Later, we learn that what we have seen is the film that Goded makes, a film that brings the action to a head by being made, and by putting Angel in the role of Zahara/Ignacio/himself — only not. Because Angel is not the former Ignacio. He is Juan, Ignacio's brother, and Ignacio is dead. And then some.
All of these twists go off with a wicked brand of pleasure; we can feel Almodóvar giving us a hard time, and it's fun to be taken on his twisted ride. Plus, he serves up plenty of sugar to help the medicine go down, including gorgeous music (especially the singing of the young Ignacio, played — though perhaps not sung — by Nacho Pérez), silly comedy, and the sheer physical beauty of his actors. (Bernal's Zahara bears a giggle-worthy resemblance to Julia Roberts; his Juan, who removes his clothes for a dip in Goded's pool, is 100 percent Mexican superstud.) But when the subject turns to pederasty, and a slithering priest who delivered a very bad education indeed, it's hard to escape a cringe. Can Almodóvar handle this material? Does he have the gravitas? Will he allow Ignacio the full spectrum of emotional experience that, as a sexual abuse survivor, is his due?
Yes and no. The film is surprisingly good with the character of Ignacio — the adult Ignacio (Francisco Boira), who appears as a transsexual in the “The Visit” (though there played by Bernal) and in Bad Education, as well as the boy at school. But it is far less so with Juan, whose artistic and personal ambition are hardly enough to justify his behavior in the latter part of the film. Almodóvar wants to steer his movie toward noir, but if he had stayed with the psychological drama between the two brothers, he'd have had something truly smart, deep, and feeling. At one point, it looks as though Juan, instead of his victimized brother, will emerge as the sympathetic character — and what a stroke of genius that could have been. But Almodóvar won't go there, or can't, and we're left with an ending that mystifies in its lack of sense.
Almodóvar's flippancy is nearly a trademark mood; he seems so often to greet terrible trauma with offhanded humor, a drag-queen/drama-mama affection for the seamy side of life. (2002's Talk to Her breezily invited us to adore a character who raped a woman in a coma.) There is glory in this kind of fun, this laughing in the face of horror. But we have to feel safe in the movie's knowledge of just how terrible the trauma is, and that's where Almodóvar fails. In Bad Education, he seems to admit the difficulty of dealing with abuse, but he doesn't see it through. That's denial, or at least a form of abandonment, and his material deserves better.