November 19, 2004,
Toward the end of Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education (in Spanish with English subtitles), a former priest, now married with children, emerges with his young male lover from viewing a classic film noir and comments, "It's as if the films were talking about us." The point, made implicitly earlier in the film and explicitly here, is that the fantasies unleashed in film noir afford viewers more than an outlet for their own suppressed yearnings: They offer a precious, if unnerving, self-knowledge. But it seems a safe bet that not many viewers will identify with Bad Education's fantasy sequences, which feature fairly explicit and decidedly degrading sex between numerous male characters.
From the talented and celebrated Almodóvar (whose All About My Mother won a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1999 and whose Talk To Her won Best Original Screenplay in 2002), Bad Education begins in 1980s Madrid, where a successful young director, Enrique Goded, peruses the tabloids in search of a storyline for his next film. In standard noir plotting, Enrique is soon interrupted by the arrival of an unanticipated visitor from his past. Ignacio Rodríguez, a school friend and former lover whom Enrique has not seen for many years and does not recognize, presents a script. Entitled "The Visit," the script is the story of the boys' 1960s childhood experience as classmates in a Catholic boarding school, where they discover music, indulge in homoerotic fantasies, and endure sexual abuse from one of the priests running the school.
Enrique cannot put down the script, the contents of which are communicated to the audience as an already-made film within the film. To add to this narrative complexity, Enrique decides to turn the script into a movie and, when he eventually begins production, we have yet another film. Meanwhile, questions emerge about the identity of Ignacio, who insists on being called by his screen name, Angel, and is so desperate to secure the transvestite role in the film that he subjects himself to being Enrique's love slave.
The molesting priest, who appears first in a series of flashbacks and then as a mysterious visitor to the set where "The Visit" is just being completed, comes off initially as a sort of tyrant. But Almodóvar does not dwell much on the Church. Of this theme, Almodóvar has said, "I am not a settling of scores with the priests who 'bad-educated' me or with the clergy in general. If I had needed revenge I wouldn't have waited 40 years to do so. The church doesn't interest me, not even as an adversary." Instead of the priesthood being a source of abuse, it is in this film merely one instance of depravity in an utterly amoral world, the noir world as Almodóvar understands it, a world requiring "lies and fatality." By the end of the film, the status of the priest is reversed; the perpetrator has become a victim.
Almodóvar depicts a world in which characters cannot but pursue their desires ruthlessly, heedless of the damage done to themselves and others. Even "sex is not a source of pleasure, but one of pain for everyone else." For an antecedent, Almodóvar hearkens back to Patricia Highsmith's classic noir character, Ripley, one of those characters whom "crime does not affect morally." Instead, crime "ends up refining them, cultivating them, and making them more charming."
But none of the characters in Bad Education exhibits anything more than fleeting charm, an illusion of youth. Unless viewers harbor the sorts of lurid and violent fantasies exhibited on the screen, it is difficult to see what could sustain interest in the plot of Bad Education.
Almodóvar strives mightily to keep us interested in his characters, in their purported mysteries. He even suggests that sexual penetration symbolizes the quest for knowledge, the desire to peer into the soul of another. Along with the characters, we are invited to investigate that obscure object of desire (to borrow the phrase from Buñuel, the greatest Spanish filmmaker). Whence desire? Can it be fulfilled? What happens when one object of desire replaces another? Where does the new desire stand in relation to the old? Will the new suffice? But these questions are all moot in a film that leaves no room for any distinction between love and lustful domination of another. The obscurity here is not rooted in the hidden depths of souls but in the dissolution before our very eyes of others as anything more than instruments of our pleasure, as unruly possessions that inevitably betray us and provoke our jealousy and desire for vengeance.
The films within the film at once invite reflection on Almodóvar as filmmaker and distance him from the multiple storylines. On one issue there is an exact correspondence between the motives of the filmmakers and actors on display in Bad Education and Almodóvar: Their creative powers are consumed by, and never transcend, the expression of violent fetishes, even those that are inflicted on the young. In this respect, it is difficult to take seriously the theme of the wonders of film to which Almodóvar draws our attention in his early portrayal of the boys' trip to a local theater. Even here, the delights and wonders of film quickly disappear, as desire turns back upon itself, leaving the boys with nothing but the momentary and illusory satisfaction of sexual desire. Here Almodóvar's fetishes border on kiddie porn.
Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.