In a New Yorker cartoon a line of middle-aged people, grey-haired, unshapely and bent, stand in line at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas with their senior tickets, waiting to see Almodóvar´s latest movie, Bad Education (La Mala Educación). The text tells us they "look forward to another grownups movie – and also perhaps back to the bracing Truffaut and the ur-Woody Allen and the knockout Bergman flicks they first caught at the Carnegie Cinema or the Beacon or the Thalia, when all the world and Anouk Aimée were fresh." (Roger Angell) In the same breath that defines Almodóvar´s cinema as adult in the sense of post-war intellectualism, the magazine's film critic David Denby predicts that Almodóvar will be the outstanding artist able to capture the essence of our time and culture: "In the next stage of his extraordinary career, Almodóvar may become the most bitterly intelligent director since Billy Wilder."
Bitter is an interesting word that fits the new movie to a 't'. Whereas Almodóvar´s earlier comedies had elements of the bitter-sweet, mixed together with the zany, gross, obsessive, outrageous (like his earlier film noir, Matador), hilarious, nutty and always provocatively sexy, this one is extra noir. Sweetness remains only as the memory of a first brief childhood love – a love between two 10-year-old boys, destroyed by betrayal and sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest. Whereas the earlier films are outstanding because of their refusal to adopt any conventional moral or obey any canon of gender or sexual rules, Bad Education adopts elements of film noir morality and shows the destruction in every character touched by the abuse, whether predator or victim.
This is of course not exactly news, just as sexual abuse devastation in the bosom of the Catholic church is not news any more. But an adult (PG17 rated) view of things is still a rarity at least in America, and Almodóvar delivers it in a sophisticated mirror game of stories, styles and points of view. Elements of farcical sex comedy, sappy photo-novellas, psychological drama and mystery-who- done-it are mixed together in a story of identity confusion, blackmail and murder. At a first viewing one can be so riveted by the stylish noir beauty and suspense of the film that one hardly notices the bitterness at the core. One can be so preoccupied with finding out who is who in the split narratives that the emotional story of child abuse seems drowned out, leaving an empty after-taste. Bad Education is a film that needs to be seen more than once.
The opening sequence is a superb collage of shifting movie, church, pornography and romance images, composed on a black toilet graffiti wall. The mood is noir, supported by the dark thriller music of Alberto Iglesias whose compositions here are even more compelling than in "Talk to Her" and other Almodóvar movies. The screen splits vertically, then reveals a cross. A voice begins to tell a story about a man driving a motorbike through an icy winter night. Two policemen on motorbikes notice something strange about the man and drive alongside him until they manage to stop him. The man has frozen to death and driven on for 60 miles. The first image reveals that the story is being read from a tabloid by a handsome twenty-something filmmaker (an alter ego of Almodóvar?). Enrique (Fele Martinez) is in a creative crisis, looking for inspiration for a new movie. The frozen biker is a leitmotiv for Enrique, the movie Enrique will make, and for Bad Education itself.
Right then Enrique gets a visit from Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), a friend from his days at a Catholic boys school whom he has not seen in 16 years. "Are you still writing?" Enrique asks the friend. No, Ignacio is an actor now and wants to be called Angel. He has come looking for a role and he has brought Enrique the last story he wrote, called "The Visit." He explains that part of the story is about their time at school, the grown-up part is fiction. Enrique is troubled by Ignacio's visit. He doesn't recognize his childhood friend. "You should take off your beard, " is his first comment, "you would look better without it." Indeed, Gael Garcia Bernal looks strangely squat and burly, with lots of hair around his face. He is quickly dismissed by Enrique ("There is nothing less erotic than an actor looking for work...") who has no intention of seeing him again.
But then Enrique reads "The Visit" and the narrative shifts to Ignacio's voice. This marks the beginning of the main story-telling device of Bad Education, in which segments of the story are told in a fragmented fashion by shifting first-person accounts. Every voice sounds believably real and yet is only a personal and perhaps not reliable version of the story.
"The Visit" begins with Gael Garcia Bernal doing a number in "La Bomba", a seedy transvestite club in the provincial town where the Catholic boys school is located. He is Ignacio, who calls himself Zahara ( " a mix of desert, hazard and cafeteria"), the glamorous star of the show. In skin-tight sequins, with a platinum blond hairdo, red fingernails painted on white gloves, and perfect skin, he/she lisps a highly suggestive lip synch to "Quizaz". This is the highly advertised moment I had waited for – when the sexy, boyish Gael turns into a woman. Unfortunately this breath-taking transformation into the transsexual heroine of the story only lasts a few moments – the literal tease –, just long enough for Zahara to flirt with a young man in the audience and throw him a red carnation. When Zahara comes out of the club with her tranny lover Paca ( Javier Cámara, who played the nurse in Talk to Her), she looks anything but glamorous. She appears as a vulgar little tart who drops Paca to take the young man with the carnation behind his ear to her room for sex and then discovers that her snoring boy-toy is Enrique, her first childhood love.
This first fragment is fairly daring sex comedy and part of the amusement is to know that the real Enrique, the filmmaker, is reading this story about himself. But the question arises who exactly sees Zahara, the glamorous performer, as a cheap, stereotypical transsexual who acts in kitschy photo novella style and never looks convincing as a woman: Almodóvar? The filmmaker Enrique? Ignacio, the writer of "The Visit"?
The story segments cut back and forth between past and present. High on speed, Zahara pays a visit to the head of the boys school, Father Manolo (Daniel Gimnénez Cacho) who is finishing mass at the adjoining church. While Paca sacks the valuable mass utensils, Zahara presents herself as Ignacio's sister. The priest does not recognize her as the boy whose writing teacher he used to be. Zahara announces that Ignacio is dead, presents the priest with Ignacio's story "The Visit", and tries to blackmail him for child abuse.
The priest reads the story and the narrative shifts again. In 10 year-old Ignacio's voice, we learn what happened in the past. Ignacio (Nacho Perez) is the star singer in the church choir and a good shot on the soccer field, where he runs with the graceful movements of a ballet girl. His beauty is mesmerizing to young Enrique who falls in love with him. Father Manolo, however, is also in love with him. With perverse sentimentality and greed the priest gets off on the angelic singing of the boys, especially at mass. Ignacio is forced to sing ambiguous songs for him in private – like Moon River with its lines about muddy waters and the longing to know what is hidden in the dark – while the other boys frolic in a lake. The boy is shown running from a thicket, shouting, "No!" while the priest comes out rearranging his robes. The boy stumbles and falls. The blood trickling down his forehead splits his face and the entire screen while his voice comments that from this moment, his life was forever divided. The stage is set for the perversion of innocence, the destruction of childhood love, and the proliferation of fictional accounts about the consequences of these events.
One of these fictions is Bad Education itself. The trauma of child sexual abuse cannot be truly presented by the adults who have been involved in it. The only voice to be trusted is the 10-year-old Ignacio. The adult characters circle around the trauma and around each other with their shifting, alienated, romanticized, caricatured or dramatized stories.
Enrique is eager to turn "The Visit" into a movie. When Ignacio /Angel insists on playing Zahara Enrique scoffs at the pretension of the actor and Angel tries to force an ultimatum on him. A brilliant erotic scene at Enrique's swimming pool shows the tense power game between filmmaker and actor who both desire something essential from each other. Enrique takes measure of the man he can't recognize, with provocative looks and the long, tantalizing crotch shots we can count on in an Almodóvar movie. But instead of having sex they have a fight. Enrique insists the bulky, masculine Angel does not have what it takes to play Zahara in the movie. Angel replies that Enrique will have no film in that case. Enrique admits that he does not believe Angel is Ignacio. He no longer writes and doesn't remember crucial tokens ( like the 60s pop song "Cuore Matto") of their shared childhood love. "People change!" Angel shouts. "If I had stayed like that kid I'd be dead now!" "I'm already dead," Enrique retorts.
Enrique is back to newspaper clipping to find another story. His next clipping tells about a woman who walks into a crocodile pond and embraces the first crocodile that comes after her. In the few minutes it takes for her to be eaten, she does not say a word. This second leitmotiv reinforces the first by pointing to a voluntary embrace of self-destruction and death.
Angel won't give up. When he approaches Enrique again, he has slimmed down and is studying with a female impersonator. Angel clearly would do anything to get the role. In the meantime, however, Enrique, who is shaken by the memories of his childhood love, has done some sleuthing. He has found out that Ignacio is dead. He now knows who his visitor Angel really is – and he allows him to audition for the role of Zahara. Auditioning, in this case, means being screwed by Enrique who does not say a word to Angel about his discoveries. Both men are double-crossing each other.
In a segment told in Enrique's voice, Enrique reports that Angel "auditioned" for months, but that the penetration was only physical. Enrique "throws himself into the crocodile pond of making the movie" in order to see how far he and Angel would go. Angel's mystery remains until the last day of shooting, when they receive a visit...and another narrative voice challenges Enrique's film version of Ignacio's death as well as Angel's role in the story.
While it remains debatable who exactly killed Ignacio – was it Angel? the priest? Ignacio himself?– Almodóvar leaves no question about the lasting consequences of sexual child abuse. Once the abuse takes place, the victims turn out to be predators themselves and everyone who survives is in different ways dead in the end. Unless something extraordinary happens, Bad Education seems to say, men drive frozen through their lives, playing at being in turn the crocodile and the woman voluptuously embracing her own destruction.