More importantly, Almodóvar’s attempt to explore the incongruities of the relationship between the priest and the young boy fails to generate any insights into the subject (or, surprisingly, pathos for either character), due to Almodóvar’s decision to spend minimal time with the characters and their backstories, except through limited flashbacks and the unreliable story-within-the-story, where the demarcation between truth and fiction has disappeared. Almodóvar also "bares the artifice" of his approach to the story-within-a-story in the scenes set at the elementary school, introducing the troubled priest and the object of his desire on an afternoon trip to a local lake, with the priest playing guitar and the young boy singing "Moon River," while the other boys cavort in slow motion at the lake. The excess of emotion, heightened by the overwrought strain present in the boy's voice (and the score), serves to distance audiences from the characters, not bring them closer, making the the priest's illicit desires seem almost inconsequential (since the audience is constantly being reminded that they are, in fact, viewing a fiction inside a fiction).
Bad Education opens in Madrid, circa 1980, several years after the death of Generalissimo Franco, the autocratic, repressive leader of Spain who ruled the mostly Catholic country for more than thirty-five years. Enrique Goded (Felé Martínez) is a successful, twenty-seven year old filmmaker (loosely modeled on Almodóvar himself). Unfortunately, Enrique is currently suffering from writer’s block (he peruses the obituaries for story ideas). Enter Ignacio (Gabriel García Bernal), who claims to be an old childhood friend (and lover) of Enrique’s. Enrique’s initial confusion and doubt is quickly dispelled, when Ignacio, now calling himself Angel Andradé offers Enrique a short story (“The Visit"), to read and to serve as the basis for a future collaboration between the two men, with Angel in one of the lead roles.
As Enrique begins to read the story, the audience is introduced to the story-within-the-story, of Ignacio and Enrique’s secret relationship in all-boy’s elementary school run by the Catholic Church, Father Manolo’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) illicit desire for Ignacio, Enrique’s expulsion, and Ignacio’s reinvention of himself as a transvestite performer, Zahara (also Gabriel García Bernal). Ignacio/Zahara, at least in this version of the story, seeks out Father Manolo, now principal of the elementary school, ostensibly to confront the priest with allegations of sexual abuse. Instead, Ignacio/Zahara demands cash in exchange for his continued silence, revealing the adult Ignacio as a grifter (in a later incarnation, he’s also revealed as a junkie). At least within the story-within-a-story, Almodóvar makes little effort to generate sympathy for Ignacio, whose childhood trauma seems to have marked him for a life of petty crime and amoral drift, but little introspection. Even in their confrontation, Ignacio’s predatory, opportunistic nature trumps whatever long suppressed feelings of anguish, despair, guilt, and regret he may still have.
But, is the audience seeing the “real” Ignacio, or a highly fictionalized version of him, one intended to hide the “real” Ignacio? Enrique, equally enamored of both Angel’s story and Angel’s body, ultimately agrees to adapt the short story into a screenplay, and give Angel the lead role, but not before his doubts about Angel’s identity lead him to investigate Ignacio’s life after their earlier separation. Like Angel, Enrique is revealed to be sexually opportunistic, withholding key information from Angel as the two men collaborate on the film version of the short story. A further complication is added by the appearance of Manuel Berenguer (Lluís Homar) on the last day of shooting, who promises to reveal certain information about Ignacio’s past. As it turns out, this new character bears a close (actually identical) relationship to a major character in “The Visit,” although here Almodóvar chooses to utilize a different actor for the “real” world. Here then, are multiple, contradictory versions of the truth, with both Enrique and the audience left to sift through the visual and narrative clues to determine which character, if any, should be believed. The short answer: with every character clearly hiding secret and not so-secret agendas, audiences will be forced to accept some parts of some statements, and reject the others.
What emerges from this collaboration between the audience and the characters, however, is less-than-compelling. Enrique’s detached passivity leaves the narrative without a moral center, and Angel/Ignacio/Zahara’s shifting identities (an initially playful exercise in the malleability of personality and performance) ultimately reveals a shallow, opportunistic character that generates little audience sympathy or empathy. Oddly, Bad Education is at its most compelling when Almodóvar focuses his attention to recreating the events described in “The Visit,” and least compelling when he jettisons the story-within-a-story device after the mid-point Bad Education and settles into exploring Enrique and Angel’s corrosively deceitful relationship, the filming of “The Visit,” and the consequences of Berenguer's revelations. In addition, for a film that attempts to use (and subvert) noir and melodramatic conventions, the climax falls short of the character- and story-revealing scenes audiences have come to expect from Almodóvar’s more successful films. Almodóvar weakly resorts to the overused device of animated title cards that describe the future lives of the principal characters (very little of it enlightening to the audience).
© Mel Valentin, 23rd December, 2004
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