Almodóvar’s movies always provide some sort of education. They might teach tolerance, an appreciation for sensuality, or maybe offer insights into the vagaries of passion. With Bad Education, the veteran bad boy of Spanish cinema is at it again, tweaking the lesson just enough so that it doesn’t turn out to be what you expect.
As ever, Almodóvar leads viewers through a tangle of mistaken identities and gender performances. Ignacio Rodríguez (Gael García Bernal) first appears as he makes an entrance, that is, as he approaches director Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) to ask for a role in his new project. In fact, says Ignacio, now calling himself Ángel, he happens to have a project that would be perfect, a screenplay based on his own experiences. Enrique is skeptical, but also secretly intrigued; so while he all but blows off his visitor (in part a performance for his judgmental assistant), he also reads the story Ignacio has left with him, titled, “The Visit.”
In love with Enrique when they were students in Catholic school during the 1960s, Ignacio has since endured much tragedy, the sort of souped-up excessiveness that will be familiar to Almodóvar’s fans. As Enrique recalls their past, Ignacio was expelled from school by the manipulative Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in order that he might keep Enrique’s youthful charms for himself. Enrique’s memories are understandably contorted, weaved into the story he’s reading and the anger he feels toward the priest, who so dominated the boy’s sexual awakening. This film creates a mix of responses (yours, the boy’s, the corruptive adult), most acutely rendered in one of a memorable moments: Manolo the principal and teacher forces Enrique the student to sing “Moon River” while watching other, remote, and safely happy students swim. “I’m longing to know what is hidden in the dark,” Enrique reads. As the camera pulls out, the Father moves in. “I run off,” he reads on, and the child stops suddenly, his head literally split in half, a stunning image of the child’s fear and betrayal.
Such trauma, Ignacio suggests, has shaped his life as well as his script, which reveals his apparent revenge on the priest, twisted through blackmail, transvestism, and violence. As he recalls his various descents (“I sold myself for the first in that sacristy to avoid Enrique being expelled) Ignacio’s story includes imagined second acts, after the expulsion and the abuse, such that the three principals are reunited. Ignacio is here a junkie and drag queen (impersonating movie star Sara Montiel), who goes on to seduce Enrique as well as the priest.
Enrique does his best to resist his former classmate’s entreaties, but finds himself drawn into the story, as he hears it, as Ignacio tells it, and as they both interpret, massage, and seem to need it. “There’s a good movie in this story,” muses Enrique. Bad Education‘s own elaborate structure (beautifully shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine) leads you through both men’s memories, deceptions, and reconstructions, interlocking as temporal dislocations, flashbacks within flashbacks, and fictions (say, the film in production, with Ignacio playing himself, in drag) within fictions. As Enrique works to sort it out, yet another man appears on the scene, one Mr. Berenguer (Lluis Homar), who claims to be Father Manolo, defrocked, with news concerning Ignacio’s terrible fate.
All this as Enrique’s film, starring Ángel (after much convincing and some blackmailing) is in production, and the projected, recreated image on set becomes as seductive and visceral as any so-called real experience (“You disconcert me,” Enrique tells his star). As always in Almodóvar, the play of identities concerns desires as well, and questions about how such desires are formed. Where Enrique and Ignacio shared a mutual as children, they are less sure now as to reasons for their interests in one another, as their seemingly “innocent” desire was so profoundly disrupted, even tainted.
At the same time, they long for resolution, for a way to bring their various performances, ambitions, and memories into some sort of coherent, if insistently complicated, interrelation. But their recollections and their desires compete, at last, rather than coincide. There can be no “good education,” only endurance and elucidation. Bad Education is finally more about reading than remembering, the ways that we delude ourselves in order to survive.