Deeper Into Movies

'Bad Education' takes a studious approach to the meta-movie

In Pedro Almodóvar's new film Bad Education, two Catholic schoolboys--one of whom will grow up to be a hip gay filmmaker--wander into a decrepit movie palace. The theater is dark and smoky, half cabaret and half cathedral. Flickering on the screen is a '60s melodrama about fallen nuns. Furtively, the boys proceed to jerk one another off. Bad Education is nominally a film about the loss of sexual innocence, but that's not what's going on here. Rather, the scene is a consecration of first love--of the boys' for one another, but also for the radical transformative possibilities that movies represent. This is pure Almodóvar: For the director, the cinema has always been a powerful means of erotic release.

So is Bad Education Almodóvar's 8-1/2--the film in which Spain's bad boy-turned-canonized saint unravels his own love affair with the movies? Yes and no. On one hand, Bad Education is Almodóvar's most obviously autobiographical film; on the other, it's a movie with so many shifting motivations and narrative blind alleys that it makes sifting truth from fiction seem an exercise in superfluity. This ambiguity, too, is vintage Almodóvar. In the director's Day-Glo pantheon of diva transvestites, femme-fatale matadors, and junky nuns, femininity is often a dramatic performance. The guys-only Bad Education adopts a similarly slippery notion of character; here, though, the masque hides something more sinister than chicks with dicks.

Bad Education sets us up for a portrait of the filmmaker as a young man. One of those Catholic schoolboys, Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez), has become a hotshot director in Madrid. That surname, halfway between Godard and the Almighty, suggests the bored imperiousness with which Enrique regards the world: In search of "inspiration," he sits around his chic office clipping macabre stories from the tabloids. In wanders Enrique's old school chum Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), now a struggling actor who insists on being called "Angel." Ignacio pitches a screenplay loosely based on their shared childhood. In part, he explains, it's a memoir of their school days, during which Ignacio was molested by a priest named Father Manolo; in part, it's a fictional version of Ignacio's subsequent years, during which he transformed himself into a drag queen named Zahara. As Enrique reads this script, we watch the movie he will ultimately make from it with Angel starring as Ignacio/Zahara. Later, when Angel's identity is thrown into question, we see the story unfold, Rashomon-style, from another perspective--though this "true" version of events may simply be another self-serving fiction.

His kind of woman: Gael García Bernal in 'Bad Education'
Sony Pictures Classics
His kind of woman: Gael García Bernal in 'Bad Education'

Got that straight? Almodóvar has played around with puzzle-box plots and play-within-a-play framing devices before, notably in 1999's All About My Mother. This is the closest he's come, though, to a meta-movie--that is, a movie that fully acknowledges its artificiality. When Martínez's director tells Bernal's Angel that he's too masculine to play Zahara, you can easily imagine Almodóvar having the same conversation with the dreamy Y Tu Mamá También star. (As it turns out, Bernal, in a blond wig and slinky silver dress, looks like Julia Roberts.) Later on, two characters who have conspired to commit a murder kill time by taking in a film noir double bill. Upon exiting, one character says to his partner in crime, "It's as if all the films were talking about us." Well, duh: You're practically acting out scenes from Mildred Pierce.

Bad Education plays, in fact, like a catalog of noir gestures. There's the Bernard Herrmann-esque score, for instance, as well as the self-conscious nods to Double Indemnity and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Some of Almodóvar's movie references are clever; others feel gratingly at odds with the inherent darkness of the material. When, for instance, Father Manolo seduces (and presumably deflowers) the 10-year-old Ignacio during a school swimming trip, the priest first forces the kid to sing "Moon River," Audrey Hepburn's woozily romantic theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's. This is about as close as Almodóvar comes to suggesting the violation of innocence that should be at Bad Education's angry core. Talk about going lightly.

Structurally inventive though it is, Bad Education ultimately feels like something of a cop-out, as though Almodóvar could only deal with the subject of priestly abuse by burying it in this overdetermined bricolage. I think part of the problem is that Almodóvar doesn't have the temperament for the genre. Noir requires a director who will steadily turn the screw, ratcheting up tension to mirror the characters' self-consuming guilt. Almodóvar, in contrast, has a tendency to jump from one dramatic high point to another, as though even a single mundane or colorless moment would bore him to tears. Bad Education is all about sin, but what does that even mean in the lurid hall of mirrors that Almodóvar establishes? To believe in sin, you have to believe in guilt. And guilt has had--at least till now--no place in Almodóvar's cinema of rhapsodic sexual liberation.

So does Bad Education mean that the transgressive filmmaker who once made a quasi-musical about heroin-addicted punk nuns has gone all stodgy and bourgeois? Nah. Certainly some people prefer Almodóvar's early movies--the outrageously campy Matador, for instance, or the loony sex opera Law of Desire--to his more restrained, mature ones. For my money, though, the director's best film is 2002's Talk to Her. A soap opera in form, Talk to Her dipped into territory every bit as outré as Bad Education's priestly pedophilia. In that earlier film, a male hospital worker carries on an affair with a comatose ballet dancer. Another filmmaker surely would have focused on the physical violation inherent in this; Almodóvar, somehow, turned a lurid tabloid setup into a melancholy, deeply humane meditation on the crazy power of imagination to heal and torment--on, in other words, the power of storytelling.

I wonder: Could the director have likewise humanized Bad Education's violation of innocence? Maybe such salvation lies beyond the pale of even Almodóvar's radically inclusive cinema.

 
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