Every couple of years, Pedro Almodóvar releases a new movie — and more often than not the critics fall over each other to declare it the greatest movie since…Almodóvar’s last movie. I’m not suggesting that the man isn’t talented, only that there’s a certain automatic quality to the way that each of his Telemundo-on-peyote tragicomedies is inevitably hailed as a fearless masterpiece of insolence, ironic passion, and interior decorating. Call me unrefined, but I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for Almodóvar, whose stylized universe of queens, studs, and women on the verge strikes me as one of coyly overbearing faux outrage. So when I say that I genuinely enjoyed Bad Education, Almodóvar’s inflamed and dazzling new drama, I stress that this isn’t coming from a typical Almodóvar fan. This time out, he has more or less abandoned his sense of comedy — and I say good riddance. Bad Education isn’t a rib-nudging absurdist soap opera. It’s a film noir that grows more potent as its secrets are revealed.
In the past, when Almodóvar used romantic-thriller conventions (as he did in, say, Matador), he put quote marks around them. Here, there’s no arm’s-length whimsy to the tale of Ignacio, who as a 10-year-old boy was coerced into a forbidden bond with the ordained literature teacher at his seminary school. He then grew up to become…who? That’s the film’s central mystery. Early on, a young man (Gael García Bernal) claiming to be Ignacio shows up at the offices of Enrique (Fele Martínez), a famous Madrid filmmaker very much like Almodóvar himself. An aspiring actor, the young man has written an autobiographical story, ”The Visit,” that reveals what went on between him and the priest. García Bernal comes off as ordinary and untroubled — that is, until the movie dives into his memoir, flashing back to the glamorously tormented junkie drag hustler that Ignacio grew up to be.
Drag brings something out in the normally placid García Bernal; his lipsticked grin acquires a wolfish hunger. We can’t quite believe that he’s the same person who showed up in the director’s office in those initial scenes — and, in fact, this is but the first of several levels of identity games that Almodóvar, doing a variation on Vertigo, plays with consummate dark skill. It would be wrong to give away any more of what happens in Bad Education. As the story’s layers are peeled away, the truth of Ignacio’s fate is revealed with a kind of sorrowful anger. Almodóvar is, of course, confronting the child sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church, yet the trickiness of the film’s structure dramatizes how even the most hidden acts of cruelty can ripple out into the world. I’m not sure if Bad Education is Almodóvar’s most personal film, but it’s the one, at least to me, in which he has spoken most directly. It feels good to finally hear his voice.