As times change, so do the questions that a movie prompts. Had I seen Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education in another season, I might have begun this review by asking about the new possibilities the movie finds in the old devices of film noir: the heartsick voiceover, the dark and secretive settings, the love object in the blond wig. Or, dazzled by the narrative structure, I might first have looked into Almodóvar's use of frames within frames: for example, the flashback envisioned by a man who is a character in another character's screenplay. The film's emphasis on reading deserves investigation--for the first half of Bad Education, people do almost nothing, on a literal level, except pore over texts--and so does the personality of the lead actor, Gael García Bernal, who is much more convincing here than as Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries. (Why so? Because, unlike Che, his present character is supposed to put you in mind of Julia Roberts.)
I'd like to ponder all these matters. But I saw Bad Education in the last weeks of the election campaign, when the United States plunged further into the condition of a church-based autocracy; and so two questions about Bad Education obsess me above all others. Can Almodóvar be considered a political filmmaker? If so, what difference does it make?
Certainly his career has benefited from, and reflected, a great political change. Almodóvar made his first, short films in 1974-79, as Franco's church-based autocracy crumbled and fresh air came rushing into Spain. His first features, made in the early 1980s, breathed a druggie, anticlerical, polysexual atmosphere, which seemed designed (as J. Hoberman wrote) to give a heart attack to any senior Phalangist who strayed into the movie house. But if you think this information pins down Almodóvar's politics, you have temporarily forgotten the possible coincidence of queer fun and political reaction. (Witness Interview magazine in that same period, with its celebration of the world's most fabulous fascists.) Also, you might recall that Almodóvar's characters almost never discuss public events or try to influence them. Except for a single scene, involving a street demonstration--an action carried out by frustrated medical workers--politics as such have scarcely entered his films.
So why do I keep wondering if Bad Education has a political nature?
No definite answer springs from the plot, or the fraction of it that I can reveal in good conscience. Enrique, a young filmmaker (Fele Martínez), is working in his deeply shadowed office one day in 1980, casting about for a story to tell, when an unexpected visitor drops by and announces himself as Ignacio, an old friend from boarding school (García Bernal). "My first love," says the wonderstruck filmmaker. The reunion falters slightly at first, then becomes more deeply awkward once the visitor explains that he is now a professional actor, who is available for work and also happens to have with him an original screenplay. Unable to beg off, Enrique agrees to read the script and soon discovers that it evokes his youth, when the two boys fell in love at a provincial Catholic school and were harshly separated by Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez-Cacho), a literature teacher with a tormented, hands-on infatuation with Ignacio.
That's a lot of domination for one movie--and we're still in the setup. Father Manolo, in the "true story" flashback, wields unjust authority over the boys; Ignacio, in the screenplay, returns to the school years later (as a blond drag artiste) to exert a dubious power of his own, by blackmailing the priest; and Enrique, in the present-day story, makes full use of his right to film the script or reject it, to hire the would-be actor or dismiss him. I suppose these contests could be called political, especially given the role in them of a large and forceful institution. (As Lenny Bruce used to say, it's the only the Church.) But as the film unfolds, its power relationships turn out to be unstable and are played out within an invariably intimate domain. The struggles enter the public arena only to the extent that they supply material for a film--and then it's an intensely personal movie, since Enrique not only puts his own story on screen but also serves as the unmistakable double of Pedro Almodóvar.
Once again, possible political meanings slip away; and yet, because of the film's chronology, they never disappear completely. The elaborate narrative scrambling in Bad Education forces you to notice that it's 1964 when the boys fall in love and are torn apart, in the depths of the dictatorship. When Ignacio returns as a blackmailing drag queen, it's 1977, when so much that had been repressed in Spain came bursting forth. Enrique decides to shoot Ignacio's script in 1980, when Almodóvar released his first feature. As I reflect on this time scheme, and on the facts that ultimately do not come out in Enrique's production, I am reminded of an eloquent passage in a recent article by Colm Tóibín, about the mood in Spain immediately after the dictatorship:
History resided then in locked memories, half-told stories, unread archives. In some families the silence was complete; the children, as they grew up in the bright new democracy, simply did not know what their parents had done in the war. Many people born in the 1950s and 1960s have unfond memories of their father growing grumpier and more silent as the war was mentioned, or having one story, which seemed to mask other more dangerous stories, told over and over, until it came to resemble a bad alibi.