Dark Habits | The Nation


Dark Habits

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A bad alibi: When Almodóvar's early features came out, they too contained a silence beneath their insistent, hectic transgressions--a silence about the nature of the society that had given birth to the filmmaker, back in the 1950s, and had nurtured him to adulthood. To Almodóvar's fans, there was nothing significant about this omission. The mere existence of his movies was said to be revelatory enough; and faced with Almodóvar's extravagant talent, many of us who sensed something hollow in the fun were willing to put aside our doubts.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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To Almodóvar's immense credit, though, he did not stop doubting. Starting about ten years ago (around the same time that he began to write Bad Education), he transformed his work, shifting its mode from travesty to melodrama and imbuing it with a new emotional maturity. Now, in Bad Education, he retraces his career to its beginning and, through the figure of Enrique, imputes to himself a guilty secret--not the worst secret that the characters bear, but creepy enough. Within the confessional setting of this film noir (so appropriate to the story's ecclesiastical background), Almodóvar owns up to having founded his work on dishonesty, manipulation and misdirection.

Perhaps you will interpret these sins as entirely personal. Maybe, going further, you will also see them as the source of artistic failings. (At the end of Bad Education, Enrique sets out to create films with "PASSION"--the word fills the screen--leaving us to wonder what truths might be obscured by those giant capital letters.) Or, thinking of the silences in post-Franco Spain, you might sense that the confession has wider implications. Surely it's significant, in a movie that's so concerned with reading, that when Enrique scans the newspapers for story ideas, he never bothers with the front page but prefers to sift through the disasters and oddities in the column-fillers. Like all but the most scandalous and doomed of the characters, he's engaged in a strategy of avoidance--until the story of Bad Education breaks in on him.

So yes, Almodóvar may now be considered a political filmmaker. He is concerned here with the aftermath of the Franco period, rather than the religious dictatorship itself, and he focuses his attention narrowly, not on civic life but on the troubled personal responses of individuals. But, that said, he has now touched on the political context as never before, and in so doing has retrospectively deepened his entire body of work.

Does it make a difference?

As the shadows fall over my half of the population--the half that is taunted as "elite" while being utterly disempowered--I think that Bad Education may have something to tell us about living through the next years. Not that Almodóvar offers any advice. What he tells us becomes intelligible only on the actors' faces: the look of fear as two boys try to hide in a darkened bathroom; the visible anguish of a culpable priest praying for mercy; the contortions of self-righteousness and self-disgust that play across Enrique's features; and most fascinating of all, most unreliable, the multiple faces worn by García Bernal as victim, villain, ingénue and opportunist.

This is Almodóvar's version of political expression. Look: These are now our moral possibilities.

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