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. 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.
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," which tells the tale of the two men as schoolboys falling 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. 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.
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, silly comedy and the sheer physical beauty of his actors. But when the subject turns to pederasty and a slithering priest who delivered a very bad education indeed, it's hard not to cringe. Can Almodóvar handle this material?
Yes and no. The film is surprisingly good with the character of Ignacio. But it is far less kind to 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. Instead, the director leaves us with a senseless, mystifying ending.
There is glory in Almodóvar's of fun, laughter 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.