Bad Education (2004): Almodovar’s Masterpiece

bad_education_posterPast and present collide in complex and unexpected ways in this dark, personal meditation about the dual power of love, to liberate and to enslave, to inspire and to destroy. “Bad Education” is harsher than Almodovar’s previous works, the more accessible and enjoyable, “All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her.” However, occupying a significant place in his already rich oeuvre, “Bad Education” ranks as one of Almodovar’s strongest films.  As expected, “Bad Education” was not as commercially successful as the prize-winning, “Talk to Her” or “All About My Mother, but it’s a more ambitious film, bringing together strands of Almodovar’s gay films of the 1980s with those of his more intimate and introspective melodramas of the 1990s.

 

Though drawing on personal experience, Almodovar insisted that “Bad Education” is not completely autobiographical.  The origins of “Bad Education” go back to Almodovar’s “Law of Desire.” In that 1986 picture, the transsexual Tina (played by Carmen Maura) goes into the school’s church, where he had studied as a boy.  A priest playing the organ in the choir asks for her identity, and she confesses to have been a pupil at that school and that he (the priest) was in love with her.  But Almodovar is not interested in settling scores with priests who continue to “bad-educate” boys like him. He has empirical evidence on his side: sex scandals have afflicted the Catholic Church over the past decade, damaging severely its reputation.   In a press conference in Cannes, he disclosed: “The church doesn’t interest me, not even as an adversary.  If I needed to take revenge, I wouldn’t have waited forty years to do so.”[i]  While he attacks the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, that’s not what the movie is about.

 

jhfbiq2qtrdSpanning 17 years, the saga begins in 1964 and ends in 1980, with one crucial interval in 1977.  Though a large part of the story is set in Madrid, the movie is not a reflection on the “La Movida” of the early 1980s. What interests Almodovar about that specific historic moment is the explosion of freedom, as opposed to the repression and obscurantism that prevailed in the 1960s, when he was growing up.

 

ormgr3c33ebDespite some humor, “Bad Education” is a quintessential film noir–as dark as they come.  It blends noir and crime elements in an erotic melodrama, laced with personal memoirs, while again exploring the issues of desire, obsession, and death. Thematically, in previous films, Almodovar was inspired by, and borrowed from, Tennessee Williams, Douglas Sirk, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  In this picture, however, he goes deep inside the noir territory, mixing elements of such melodramas as “Leave Her to Heaven,” dark, excessive, and incestuous sagas like “Mildred Pierce,” and obsessive romances like “Laura.”  Like American film noir, “Bad Education” draws heavily on the hard-boiled literary tradition, defined by its crime-thriller elements and critique of societal mores. More specifically, “Bad Education” pays tribute to Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” and to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”  Like those classics, “Bad Education” is about obsessive love, illicit affairs, double-dealing, and scandalous revelations.  The opening credits pay homage to Saul Bass (who did many striking title sequences for Hitchcock and Preminger), and the loud discordant score of Alberto Iglesias is very much in the spirit of Bernard Herrmann’s thunderous scores for Hitchcock, specifically “Psycho.”

 

Set in 1980 Madrid, the first act finds Enrique (Fele Martinez), a gay director with no idea or inspiration for his next feature. Out of the blue, he’s visited by Ignacio (Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal), a handsome youth claiming to be his old classmate and first love. Ignacio, who now goes by the name of Angel, says that he is pursuing an acting career. He hands Enrique a story titled, “The Visit,” an allusion perhaps to Friedrich Durrenmatt’s famous play, “The Visit of the Old Lady,” later filmed as “The Visit,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn. The tale is inspired by their childhood experiences, when they were abused by the school principal, Father Manolo, and by Ignacio’s subsequent life as Zahara, a drug-addict-transvestite. “Bad Education” might have been called Almodovar’s “Secrets & Lies,” though bearing different meanings than Mike Leigh’s acclaimed 1986 picture.  Appearances are deceiving and, when it comes to identity, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface.  As soon as we form an opinion of a character in “Bad Education,” Almodovar presents a challenging twist, such as the revelation that Ignacio has a “mysterious” brother.

 

The childhood episodes display a lyrical, dreamy quality, especially an idyllic scene out in the country with the boys relaxing and swimming.  Ignacio is singing upon request Audrey Hepburn’s theme song, “Moon River,” from Blake Edwards’ 1961 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” based on Truman Capote’s most famous novel, which is admired by Almodovar, who had made s significant reference to Capote in “All About My Mother.”  Father Manolo is genuinely in love with the angelic Ignacio, and his cruel decision to separate him from Enrique is driven by obsessive jealousy.

 

Structurally, “Bad Education” displays one of the director’s most intricately woven plots.  The movie unfolds as a labyrinth, with layers on top of layers, strands interfacing with other strands.  It’s masterful work, in which symmetry works, often in reverse.  The organizational principle of the text is that of the triad. “Bad Education” is the story of three triangles:  the trio of the two pupils and their school principal, the trio of the two brothers and Mr. Berenguer, and finally, the trio of the director, actor, and Mr. Berneguer.

 

The visitor, who calls himself Mr. Berenguer and intrudes into Enrique’s set, turns out to be Father Manolo himself, dressed in civilian clothes.  It’s been 17 years, to be exact, since the last time they had met, when Manolo had expelled him from school.  Now, it’s Enrique, as director, who expels Manolo-Berenguer from his office. However, when Manolo offers information about Ignacio’s death and Angel’s identity, Enrique becomes intrigued, driven by the same curiosity that had led him to work with Angel.

 

The metaphor of crocodiles, shown earlier in the film, comes full circle, making its meaning clearer.  While listening to Manolo’s story, Enrique begins to feel like the woman who threw herself into a pool of crocodiles and was hugged by them while they ate her.  (In this motif, Almodovar might have been inspired by Eve Arden’s witty one-liner about crocodiles in the 1945 crime noir melodrama, “Mildred Pierce”).

 

Almodovar borrows from the noir genre the elements of desire, deception, fatalism, double identity, and crime.  But if in American noir, the “femme fatale” is a female, in “Bad Education” it’s a male.  He is an enfant terrible who combines in his sultry and soulless nature elements from the roles played by Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, and Jean Simmons, to mention some of Hollywood’s famous femme fatales and black widows.  The scene in which Berenguer and Juan go to Valencia’s Museum of Giant Creatures to plan a murder pays explicit tribute to the supermarket scene in “Double Indemnity,” in which Stanwyck (in blonde wig and dark glasses) and Fred MacMurray plan to murder her husband.  It may also allude to the famous aquarium scene between Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in Welles’ 1948 quintessential noir, “The Lady from Shanghai.”

 

Almodovar uses the screen as a reflective mirror for the protagonists and the spectators.  When Ignacio and Mr. Berenguer go to the movies after committing murder, the theater they choose “happens” to be showing two French film noirs: Renoir’s “The Human Beast,” and Marcel Carne’s “Therese Raquin.”  These movies involve similar situations to those surrounding the men who are watching them.  Leaving the theater, the devastated Berenguer complains, “It’s as if all the films were talking about us.” He is not kidding, they do![ii]

 

Fiction and reality continue to interface up to the end. When Berenguer visits Enrique’s set, he sees himself as Father Manolo in front of the camera –it’s a film about him, written by one pupil (Ignacio) and directed by another (Enrique).  Berenguer is thus forced to contemplate his own past as it’s narrated and thus deconstructed by his former pupils-victims.

 

The density in “Bad Education” is reflected in its multiple layers, based on the duality, duplicity, and mirrors that inform what is seen by the characters.  There are at least three narrative layers: The first is the “real story,” the second is the story told by Ignacio in his short story (inspired by the “real story”); and the third is the story Enrique is adapting from the short story, now visualized as a film.  Like many American noirs, the “double” and role reversal motifs are expressed in the portraiture of desire.  The passion Father Manolo feels for the boy and his abusive power turn him into an executioner.  However, years later, when Manolo calls himself Mr. Berenguer and falls in love with Juan, the wrong guy, he is the one who becomes the victim.

 

For me, “Bad Education” is a stronger, more personal and significant work than the universally acclaimed “Talk to Her,” though Almodovar was aware that the film’s subject would limit its potential commercial appeal.  Indeed, after a series of hugely successful pictures, “Bad Education” performed only moderately at the U.S. box-office.