Tuesday, March 25, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Bad Education (2004)
Director: Pedro Almovodar
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez
Anyone who thinks that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were "brave" to make Brokeback Mountain should go out and watch Bad Education and see the limits pushed by Gael Garcia Bernal. In this movie about making a movie, where life and art overlap, where truth and identity are things that are malleable, and sex is used as a weapon, Bernal shines as a sexually ambiguous actor willing to do anything to become a star.
The plot of the film is complex, weaving together three stories involving variations on the same set of characters. It begins with two young boys at a Catholic boarding school. They love each other and are both sexually abused by a priest who catches them together in a bathroom stall. But this, as it turns out, is a scene from a film being directed Enrique (Fele Martinez). The boys are based on himself and his childhood friend, Ignacio (Bernal), who has written the screenplay (or has he?). In the film, Ignacio and Enrique meet again as adults. Ignacio is transgendered and goes by the name Zahara; Enrique is drunk and doesn't realize that Zahara is not only a man, but also his childhood friend. They go home together and have a sexual encounter that is surprisingly explicit if you’ve never before seen a Pedro Almodovar film. Later, Zahara will return to the school and attempt to blackmail the priest, resulting in death.
In real life, Ignacio shows up at Enrique's office with a script. He want Enrique to direct, but also wants to play the part of himself/Zahara. Enrique is sceptical about his playing the part, but allows himself to be convinced once the two become lovers. However, by this point Enrique has begun to suspect that the man claiming to be Ignacio is actually an impostor. In truth, the man is Ignacio’s brother, Angel, and the real Ignacio is dead. Whether or not Enrique ever actually believed that Angel was really Ignacio is somewhat uncertain. In their first meeting, Angel/Ignacio tells Enrique that he now prefers to be called Angel, rather than Ignacio. Wouldn’t Enrique know that Ignacio had a younger brother named Angel, given how close they once were? In the scenes that follow, it doesn’t seem like Enrique really believes Angel’s claim, or that Angel believes that Enrique has fallen for it. Rather, it seems as if both men have agreed to conduct themselves according to the pretence that Enrique believes Angel is Ignacio, as a way of getting what they want (for Enrique, it’s the truth about Ignacio; for Angel it’s the role in the film). When they have sex, it seems less like an act of desire than an act of necessity. If Enrique and the real Ignacio were reunited, they would have sex. Therefore Enrique and Angel have sex in order to protect the narrative they seem determined to act out.
Soon after production on the film has begun, Padre Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), the priest on whom the story is based, shows up. He asks Enrique how the script, which shows Ignacio/Zahara being murdered and the crime being covered up, came to mirror so closely the real situation. This begins a third story in which the real Ignacio/Zahara (Francisco Boira) blackmails the priest in order to support her smack habit. When Manolo pays her a visit, he meets and becomes smitten with Angel, and begins giving him gifts in exchange for sexual favours. Eventually, Angel decides that the time has come to put Zahara out of her misery – in part because of what her drug habit is doing to their family, and in part because he wants to pass off the stories that she’s written as his own. He enlists Manolo’s help, a bad idea since once Angel gains fame from his performance in the film, Manolo begins blackmailing him.
Almodovar weaves the three stories together seamlessly. We aren't aware, at first, that we're watching Enrique's movie, and even once we do know that he's directing a film, we aren't always sure of where the fiction stops and the "reality" begins. The performance by Bernal is amazing as he plays, essentially, three different characters, each one not quite what he (or she) seems. He manages the task of at once putting everything out there, but also keeping the character close to the vest. Is Angel gay or does he just use men and their desire for him as stepping stones to get closer to what he wants? In the end we find out that he's married, but is his marriage just for the sake of the stardom he's attained in the film industry? We never find out, and that's part of the beauty of the film. We never really know for sure what part of the story is real, and what part of the story is being told and embellished, distorted for the sake of telling. That it moves us nonetheless is a testament to Almodovar's power as a filmmaker.