Whatever expectations you have for this film, throw them out the window. In true Pedro Almodóvar fashion, they will be completely obliterated by the time the credits start rolling. La Mala Educación (2004), also known by its English title Bad Education, has the most vague plot description on its IMDb page ever: An examination on the effect of Franco-era religious schooling and sexual abuse on the lives of two longtime friends.
In fact, La Mala Educación is so much more than a story about sexual abuse and its long-term harms. This is a film about the complexities of adult relationships within the context of childhood trauma. It’s a film about sexuality, transgender identity, about creativity, about corruption within the Catholic church and schooling system. Pedro Almodóvar loves playing with his audience’s minds, and this film is no exception – the story doubles in on itself in the style of metafiction, in a way that is understandable within the moment but difficult to explain upon reflection. The film, like the human relationships within it, is complex and multilayered.
I’d been meaning to see this for a very long time. Unfortunately, when you consider watching this with friends and pose the aforementioned plot description to people, no one is really interested because it sounds like one of the most depressing films this side of Grave of the Fireflies (1998). In actual fact, La Mala Educación has a pretty wicked sense of humour which can be quite silly at times, enhanced with clever editing by Almodóvar’s long-time editing companion, José Salcedo. This is accompanied by music by Alberto Iglesias which sounds like it was birthed out of some Hitchcockian nightmare. The combination of the film’s humour and wit, composition of scenes, and dramatic music create some very surreal moments indeed.
Visually, the film is so richly illustrated. Each shot is composed of gorgeous colouring – whether it’s the jewel tones of a creative’s office, the sepia tones as a priest realises he’s done something very wrong, or the blue and black tones where two boys hide and protect one another, the rich colour palette creates a beautiful atmosphere even in the most confronting of moments. The moments of metafiction are illustrated in a way that sets them apart from the rest of the film to make sure the fiction is separate from the ‘reality’, through narrowing the screen within the film; creating a film-within-a-film, and sometimes even a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. The cinematography by José Luis Alcaine is stellar.
Throughout my viewing experience, I was continually impressed by each and every performance. Particularly that of Gael García Bernal, who (like Benedict Cumberbatch) is some kind of supernatural acting chameleon who defies expectation every time. His performance is truly fearless and mesmerising. Fele Martinez is also an excellent counterpoint to Gael García Bernal’s character(s), with his relentless search for inspiration, creativity and truth. Sometimes the film can get a bit too cheesy for my tastes, particularly towards the end. There’s something about this film, despite its very impressive qualities, that almost descends into soap opera (or telenovela) territory. The ending, although very affecting, feels like a lost opportunity given the amazing amounts of setup at the beginning that didn’t resort to a similar level of melodrama.
With beautiful aesthetics and direction, and fearless acting by its lead protagonists and supporting characters, La Mala Educación is a strange experience, and overall a very good film. Even though its tendency towards melodrama caught me off guard towards the end, the first two thirds were highly impressive. I still can’t believe it took me so long to watch this film, and I’m glad I finally saw it. If you’re considering watching this with friends, perhaps a) keep in mind the large but not gratuitous amount of sexual content, and b) sell it to your fellow film viewers by discussing its complexities and mysteries rather than the vague and super depressing IMDb synopsis.
Watch the trailer here.