Bad Education, the latest must-see from Pedro Almodovar, is, unfortunately, a bit of a disappointment. Not coincidentally, this is his first film to feature an all-male cast, and the result begs the question: Does he simply like women more than men? On the evidence of this sour and misanthropic film, this indeed may be the case. What makes the failure of Bad Education even more surprising is that it promises to be Almodvar’s most personal and deeply felt film, in addition to boasting the presence of Mexican heartthrob Gael Garc’a Bernal (who, in fact, spends a good part of his role in drag, and oh boy is he a hottie–the transgender spawn of Rob Lowe and Julia Roberts). The plot concerns several elements that have always concerned Almodvar: gayness, Catholicism, filmmaking and the emergence of Spain from the fascist rule of Generalissimo Franco. More to the point, the pivotal events of the film take place in a Catholic boarding school where two preternaturally bright preteen boys fell in love, only to be separated by a pedophile priest who proceeds to molest one of them.
But, as it turns out, Almodvar doesn’t seem as concerned with this potentially explosive material as he is in how those events are exploited by the boys when they grow up. (As a portrait of Catholic pedagogy-as-horror show of sexualized sadism and brutality, Bad Education has nothing on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters.) Instead, Almodvar has couched the glowing core of his story in layer upon layer of fabrication, storytelling and prevaricating queens fucking each other over. Literally. In the end, Bad Education is a nasty portrait of the creative process as a cycle of exploitation, about which Almodvar has little new to say. Fortunately for him, however, I don’t believe his version of it and I’m not sure he does, either.
A romantic vignette between two boys in the repressive environment of a parochial school forms the emotional core of Bad Education, but it’s wrapped in so many dense and opaque layers of narrative that virtually no heat escapes. Even by Almodvar’s standards, the plot, which opens in Madrid in 1980, is convoluted. Enrique (Fele Mart’nez, charmless and saddled with a hideous period haircut), is a young, creatively blocked filmmaker of modest renown, who receives a visit from Ignacio (Bernal), who claims to be an actor and a school chum of Enrique. Ignacio has written a story called “The Visit” that he wants Enrique to produce. As it turns out, “The Visit” recounts the sexual and emotional transaction that took place years before between Ignacio and Enrique. However, the story itself contains a layer of narrative filter: It’s also the story of the adult Ignacio–now a drag queen called Zahara–who confronts and blackmails the priest who broke up the affair, expelled Enrique and proceeded to molest Ignacio. In an extra narrative twist, “The Visit” is enacted as a movie within the movie, with Angel/Bernal dressed in drag as Zahara. Only through the lens of this filmed story within the movie do we get a glimpse of the episode that motivates the entire movie.
If that’s not enough, we soon learn that Ignacio is an unreliable character. Enrique’s suspicions are aroused first because Ignacio insists on calling himself Angel and he doesn’t seem to remember the old songs of his youth. And, to top it off, he just doesn’t seem all that gay. Still, Enrique likes “The Visit” enough to film it, but he doesn’t want to cast the unproven Angel in the lead. Angel’s insistence on this point makes Enrique even more suspicious.
Almodvar has, for many years and films, refracted his dramas through other artistic media. His characters are often actors or other kinds of performers such as dancers or matadors or novelists. In his last (and to me, overrated) film, Talk to Her, he found in the music of Caetano Veloso and the choreography of Pina Bausch the means of expressing his themes of love, loss and regeneration. In his finest film, All About My Mother–a finely wrought, casually shocking and deeply moving story of women recovering from loss and reconstituting their families–he took inspiration from All About Eve, Cassavetes’ Opening Night and A Streetcar Named Desire, with the last work being produced within the movie. Typically in Almodvar’s work–and especially in All About My Mother–his performer-characters wear masks for protection, masks that often lead to their ultimate liberation.
But his layering of narrative devices doesn’t work in Bad Education, partly because they only serve to obscure our understanding of a dreadful, yet poignant, long-ago episode. But the main reason is that the characters–in and out of “reality”–are such selfish, petulant, larcenous and murderous assholes, not to put too fine a point on it. The vileness of the men in this film is particularly striking because Almodvar has built a career out of joyously celebrating female survivalism, of putting a lavender spin on women’s esprit de corps that only a gay artist could. But with Bad Education, his eye is on the men. In the past, his men have been dumb studmuffins or ineffectual, unreliable cads, and they’ve almost always been comic foils to his long-suffering women. But there are, unfortunately, no women in Bad Education, save for an expository mom or two.
The men in Bad Education are a nasty bunch. They exploit each other sexually and creatively, such as when the artistic bloodsucker Enrique finally agrees to cast Angel in the film in exchange for sexual favors, which Angel all too happily provides. But worse–much worse–they are murderers and blackmailers. In Bad Education, a sensitive and talented youngster becomes a junkie transvestite who yet manages to write passable fiction. And later, an act of fratricide occurs in the film with scarcely a blink of remorse or self-doubt.
Can Almodvar really mean all this? Is he really so jaded about the creative process that he would have Enrique, his allegedly serious filmmaker (and perhaps alter ego), cynically exploit a hot young actor sexually for months? Is he in earnest when he has a character casually murder a brother, submit to an affair with a vile and unattractive older man and commit murder yet again? I actually don’t think Almodvar truly believes in this constellation of knaves. Rather, I suspect that his creative process boxed him into these untenable characters: His films occupy a closed aesthetic world, and while his world is usually a wonderful place to visit, his brightly lit but hermetic sensibility can also suffocate psychological realism.
Another explanation for the remorseless amorality of the men in Bad Education is a more laudable one: Almodvar wanted to illustrate the damage that pedophiles do to children, inflicting scars that last a lifetime and destroying their ability to trust and love. And maybe men are less resilient, for in All About My Mother and many of his other films, the battle-scarred women band together and survive. The men in Bad Education, however, are damned.
In interviews, Almodvar has stated emphatically that although he, like the boys in Bad Education, was educated in Catholic schools, he wasn’t molested as a child. Perhaps he felt that his personal ignorance of the trauma of child molestation disqualified him from engaging with it more directly, thus leading him to the complicated and frustrating subterfuges of Bad Education. If so, more’s the pity, because the most vibrant, intense and heartbreaking scenes are between the two boys at the core of the film.
Almodvar is not known for working with children, but he extracts lovely performances from the boys (Nacho Perez and Raul Garc’a Forneiro). Their scenes are so good that I wished Almodvar had dispensed with his usual pop-modern sensibility and entrusted the entire film to them, and to Daniel Gimenez Cacho, who plays the tortured pedophile priest. Such a tack would have made Bad Education more of a Truffaut film than an Almodvar project, but it would have been more satisfying and quite possibly better.