Bad Education

By Gareth Buckell

Gven that General Franco’s regime outlasted its fascist counterparts by thirty years, Spanish cinema inevitably spent the mid-twentieth century impaired by censorship and repression. The works of Luis Buñuel, openly critical of Franco, were filmed in Mexico or France; poet and scriptwriter Rafael Alberti was forced to operate in Argentina. When Franco finally died in 1975, a new generation of filmmakers were needed to represent Spain’s uneasy transition to democracy: no director has strived to break the moulds of the dictatorship more forcefully than Pedro Almodóvar.

Almodóvar’s career has had peaks and troughs: exuberant, sexually charged melodramas such as law of desire gave way to the more ingratiating women on the verge of a nervous breakdown; its international success led Almodóvar into High Heels and Kika, which won little critical acclaim and garnered charges of misogyny. The Flower of My Secret suggested a more mature style, away from the gaudy hysteria of his earlier works, and this stage of Almodóvar’s career produced the beautiful All About My Mother, andt Talk to Her , both stunning dramas, imaginatively plotted and characterised with incredible sensitivity.

Bad Education, a deeply personal film in which Almodóvar addresses paedophilia within the priesthood during the Francoist period, feels like it should be the zenith of this mature stage. Starring Gael García Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También), it in many ways resembles law of desire, dealing with similar themes: transgenderism, filmmaking and sexual abuse. It is just as melodramatic, too, as that film, although more restrained and, in ways, even darker.

Certainly, Bad Education is not afraid to shock, although it does not do so gratuitously. Scenes where schoolboys Ignacio and Enrique mutually masturbate in a cinema, or are caught and blackmailed by masters at their Catholic school, build into a damning indictment of the sexual repression and ignorance of the defunct regime. That said, the film is not without relevance to contemporary Spain, with Father Manolo’s attempts to avoid exposure feeling like a critique of José María Aznar’s effort to ingratiate himself to the US-UK power bloc, the brazen cynicism of which cost the lives of 200 people in Madrid, and Aznar’s party their place in office. Indeed, the adult scenes between director Enrique and his childhood friend reflect the confusion about Spain’s reconstruction and the cultural rebuilding needed to accompany it.

Like All About My Mother and Talk to Her, it is filmed with great verve, instantly recognisable from beginning to end with the director’s trademark strong colours and winding narrative. All of the characters, ranging from paedophile priests to pre-op transsexual heroin addicts, are treated with humanity, and despite the film’s unsavoury subject matter, the story is told with a warm, striking sense of humour. Almodóvar shoots drag queen Zahara (played by García Bernal) with great love; the frequent nods towards film noir allow the director to frame his star in much the same way as Rita Hayworth was by Vidor in Gilda.

For all that, Bad Education feels like a disappointment after the triumphs of Almodóvar’s last two films. Too many of the themes have been explored before, and Amodóvar does not add sufficiently to Law of Desire or All About My Mother to make Bad Education feel as fresh as those films. At times, Almodóvar’s self-revelations go a touch too far: when Enrique talks his friend through a creative crisis caused by a lack of ideas, it seems as if Almodóvar is talking his audience through the difficulties experienced in making this film. Although well-acted, some of the characters feel a little tired (in particular Paca, a lazy re-working of All About My Mother’s Agrado and a waste of the talented Javier Cámara, magnificent in Talk to Her), and the plotline feels a tad convoluted.

Nonetheless, Bad Education is by no means a poor film, more a letdown. The election of Zapatero’s socialists represents an awareness of the need to rethink Spain’s domestic politics and foreign policy; the challenge for Pedro Almodóvar, with Bad Education feeling so conclusive to his recent evolution, is to reinvent his style again, and move in a new direction.
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