The film was released on 19 March 2004 in Spain and 10 September 2004 in Mexico. It was also screened at many international film festivals such as Cannes, New York, Moscow and Toronto before its US release on November 19, 2004. The film received critical acclaim, and was seen as a return to Almodovar's dark stage, placing it alongside films such as Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987).
In 1980 Madrid, young film director Enrique Goded is looking for his next project when he receives the unexpected visit of an actor looking for work. The actor claims to be Enrique's boarding school friend and first love, Ignacio Rodriguez. Ignacio, who is using now the name Ángel Andrade, has brought with him a short story titled "The Visit" hoping that Enrique would be interested in making a film out of it giving him the starring role. Enrique is intrigued since "The Visit" described their time together at the Catholic school and it also includes a fictionalized account of their reunion many years later as adults.
"The Visit" is set in 1977. It tells the story of a drag artist and transgender woman called Zahara, whose birth name is Ignacio. Zahara plans to rob a drunken admirer but discovers that the man is her boyhood lover Enrique. Next she visits her old school and confronts Father Manolo, who abused her when she was a boy. She demands one million pesetas from him in exchange for halting publication of her story "The Visit". The story is set in a Catholic boarding school for boys in 1964. At the school, Ignacio, a young boy with a beautiful singing voice, is the object of lust of Father Manolo, the school principal and literature teacher. Ignacio has found his first love and cinema in the company of Enrique, a classmate. One night, Manolo discovers them together and threatens to expel Enrique. In an attempt to prevent this, Ignacio gives himself to Manolo. The priest molests Ignacio, but expels Enrique nonetheless.
Enrique wants to adapt Ignacio's story into a film, but Ángel's condition is that he plays the part of Zahara, the transsexual lead. Enrique remains skeptical, for he feels that the Ignacio whom he loved and the Ignacio of today are totally different people. He drives to Galicia to Ignacio's mother and learns that the real Ignacio has been dead for four years and that the man who came to his office is really Ignacio's younger brother, Juan.
Enrique's interest is piqued, and he decides to do the film with Juan in the role of Ignacio to find out what drives Juan. Enrique and Ángel start a relationship, and Enrique revises the script so that it ends with Father Manolo, whom Ignacio was trying to blackmail to get money for sex reassignment surgery, having Ignacio murdered. When the scene is shot, Ángel breaks out in tears unexpectedly.
The film set is visited by Manuel Berenguer, who is the real Father Manolo, who has resigned from Church duty. Berenguer confesses to Enrique that the new ending of the film is not far from the truth: the real Ignacio blackmailed Berenguer, who somehow managed to scratch together the money but also took an interest in Ignacio's younger brother, Juan. Juan and Manuel started a relationship and after a while realized they both wanted to see Ignacio dead. Juan scored some very pure heroin, so that his brother would die by overdose after shooting up. After the crime, the relationship disintegrates; Berenguer wants to continue the relationship with Juan, but Juan is uninterested. Berenguer claims that he will never let Juan go, and Juan threatens to kill him if Berenguer continues to pursue him. Berenguer attempts to blackmail Juan for his part in the murder of Ignacio.
Enrique is shocked and not at all interested in Juan's weak vindications for what he did to his brother. Finally, before he leaves, Juan gives Enrique a piece of paper: a letter to Enrique that Ignacio was in the middle of typing when he died.
In the epilogue, it is mentioned that Enrique releases his film later and achieves great success. Despite the grief and guilt of his brother, Juan also achieves success, but was later relegated to television work. Berenguer dies in a hit-and-run (caused by Juan, who was being blackmailed by Berenguer, and thus fulfilling his promise made earlier in the film).Gael García Bernal as Juan / Ángel Andrade / Zahara. García was required to display a convincing Castilian Spanish accent before being cast.
Fele Martínez as Enrique Goded
Raúl García Forneiro as young Enrique
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Father Manolo
Javier Cámara as Paca/Paquito
Petra Martínez as Mother
Leonor Watling as Monica, wardrobe girl
Lluís Homar as Sr. Manuel Berenguer
Francisco Boira as Ignacio
Nacho Pérez as young Ignacio
Juan Fernández as Martín
Alberto Ferreiro as Enrique Serrano
According to Almodóvar, he worked on the screenplay for over ten years.
Bad Education was initially given an NC-17 rating for "a scene of explicit sexual content", the film was later edited to an R rating for "strong sexual content throughout, language, and some drug use".
After a New York Times reporter stated that Bernal had a falling out with the director over the film’s content, the actor defiantly wrote in response that nothing could be further from the truth.
The film opened in the 57th Cannes Film Festival in 2004, the first Spanish film to do so.
The film opened theatrically in the United States on 19 November 2004 in three venues, earning $147,370 in its opening weekend, ranking number 30 in the domestic box office. At the end of its North American theatrical run (its widest release being in 106 venues), the film had grossed $5,211,842 in the United States and Canada, and $35,062,088 overseas ($7,356,224 in its home country of Spain), making $40,273,930 worldwide.
The film received critical acclaim. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 137 reviews were positive, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The site's consensus states: "A layered, wonderfully-acted, and passionate drama." On Metacritic, the film has an 81 out of 100 rating, based on 34 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Ann Hornaday from The Washington Post wrote "To watch Bad Education is to revel, along with Almodóvar, in the power of cinema to take us on journeys of breathtaking mystery and dimension and beauty." Marjorie Baumgarten from the Austin Chronicle wrote “With Bad Education, the great Almodóvar delivers the finest movie of his career.” Peter Travers from Rolling Stone wrote “A rapturous masterwork.”