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Saturday, March 28, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Bad Education (2004)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez
Country: Spain

No one does it quite like Pedro Almodovar. Who else could so successfully make a noirish melodrama about a sexually fluid/opportunistic young man willing to do anything to become a star, including exploit a story of child sexual abuse for his own gain, and do so in a way that depicts the perpetrator of that abuse as, if not “sympathetic,” exactly, then at least as another kind of victim? In Bad Education, a film with a movie within the movie and where the division between life and art is as malleable as the notions of “truth” and “identity,” Almodovar does just that and manages to create a narratively complex, ambitious, daring, and provocative film – but, of course, pretty much all of Almodovar’s films can be described using all of those words.

The story in Bad Education turns on two characters: Enrique and Ignacio. For a brief period as children the two attended the same Catholic boarding school and became deeply attached to each other on an emotional and sexual level before being separated by the priest who acted as the school’s principal and who had his own sexual interest in Ignacio. Some 20 years later Enrique (Fele Martinez) is a successful film director and is reunited Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is now an actor going by the stage name “Angel” and has written a screenplay based in part on events from the time that he and Enrique spent together. Enrique is intrigued by the story, which also sees the characters of “Enrique” and “Ignacio” meeting again as adults, though in the story Ignacio is transsexual and has renamed herself Zahara; but he quickly begins to have doubts about Angel, who is so different from the boy he knew, and who insists on being allowed to play the part of Zahara in the film. Despite his misgivings, Enrique gets involved with Angel, both professionally and romantically, but the publicity surrounding the movie results in the re-emergence of the now former priest who abused Ignacio, a man who can provide Enrique with the missing pieces to the puzzle that is Ignacio, and who has the potential (and the motive) to destroy Angel.

Bad Education weaves together three stories that ultimately inform and comment on each other. One is the film within the film, which tells the story of two adolescent boys who love each other and are separated by an abusive priest, and how one of them grows up and decides to seek revenge only to be felled by the ruthless self-protection of the Catholic Church. One is the version of events related by Manuel Berenguer (Lluis Homar), the man on whom the priest character in the film within the film is based, which is a tale even more sordid and sad than the one being dramatized by Enrique and Angel, and in which he comes to seem like a victim himself, albeit one who is open to being victimized as a result of his own abhorrent deeds, and which makes Angel seem like a monster of the darkest kind of ambition. The other story is the one playing out between Enrique and Angel, which could not exist without those other two stories but becomes the most fascinating part of the film, in part because the two characters seem to be playing a game of sexual chess. Whether Enrique ever really believes that Angel is Ignacio is somewhat uncertain, but his suspicion that Angel is merely an imposter only begins to express itself in the form of hostility when Angel demurs in the face of Enrique’s early attempts to get him into bed. It is only after Enrique does some digging and learns part of the truth that he and Angel begin their sexual relationship, which for both of them appears to be something borne less of desire than of the need for pretense: if he wants to get to the full truth, Enrique needs Angel to believe that he’s under his spell, and part of that means sleeping with him (it may also be, in part, a means of punishing Angel, whom the film depicts as finding the experience more painful than pleasurable); if he wants to become a star via the film, Angel needs Enrique’s favor and needs him to believe that he’s his long lost love, and part of that means sleeping with him. What each man knows, and what each knows that the other knows, is sort of beside the point; without putting into so many words, they’ve agreed to act out a certain narrative together and that’s what they do, until a new version of the truth muscles its way in and makes it impossible for them to carry on as they were.

The success of Bad Education as a film comes down to a few important things. One is Almodovar’s refusal to be shy when it comes to depicting sex and sexuality – he is discrete in the depiction of child abuse, but scenes between adult characters are fairly explicit – which initially earned Bad Education an NC-17 rating, but which is essential to telling a story that rests so much on ideas of gender, sexuality, desire, guilt, and sexual manipulation. Another is the performance by Bernal, who essentially plays three roles in the film: Ignacio, Angel, and Zahara, none of whom are ever exactly what they seem to be. As the film nears the end, his character comes to seem like a sociopath, so easily does he slip in and out of personas depending on who he’s engaging with and what he wants from them, not to mention the lengths that he’s willing to go to get what he wants. Bernal’s performance, which requires him to play a character hiding behind various characters, is precise and tightly controlled, but never stiff; it’s layered and carefully calculated in accordance with his very conniving character.

Bernal is an important factor in terms of how well the film comes together, but credit for the film ultimately goes to Almodovar, who so masterfully merges the narrative threads and keeps the film moving lightly on its feet even when the material is at its heaviest. Bad Education is a powerful, expertly made film that came out of a particularly good decade for the director (one which included two of his most critically acclaimed films, Talk to Her and Volver, as well as the slightly underrated Broken Embraces) and is as spellbinding now as it was in 2004.

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