In his new movie, Bad Education, Pedro Almodovar breaks camp and returns to a form that served him well earlier in his career, before he began making more flamboyant-cum-garish films about women and love -- or "women" and "love," since so much of what he does invites qualification.
His absorbing gay-themed melodrama Law of Desire (1987) concerned a 40ish film director and his ardent young lover (an emerging Antonio Banderas). Bad Education returns to this milieu, with a few tangents nurtured by the filmmaker's celebrated career, and by (rare for him) current events.
Almodovar's sensibility has always been unapologetically gay. But in Bad Education, he's made an homage to himself as an out gay director (in formerly fascist Spain, by the way). That the film also has a plot about a sexually abusive priest finally feels more like a device (what isn't in his work?) that allows him to declare a few things about sexual openness in a changing rest-of-the-world.
The storytelling in Bad Education jumps around in time and realities. The drama essentially takes place in 1980 and begins when the successful young gay filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), who's about 30 years old, receives an unannounced visit from Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was his first love back when the two teen-age boys attended Catholic boarding school together in the mid-1960s.
Enrique hasn't seen Ignacio, a budding writer and cinema buff back then, since the two were ripped apart very early in their seminal affair. Ignacio has given up writing for acting, but he believes his last short story, "The Visit," a semi-autobiographical account of their childhood and its aftermath, will make a great movie. He wants Enrique to direct it, and he insists upon playing the lead, Zahara, a drag entertainer.
As Bad Education unfolds from this setup, its other elements emerge: flashbacks to the boys' school of the '60s, where Father Manolo, the literature teacher, pressed his bulging cassock against those very special boys who attracted him; scenes from Enrique's subsequent film of "The Visit," where Zahara encounters a fictionalized "Enrique," now a married father who cruises trendy gay nightclubs seeking sexual fulfillment; and finally, after production wraps, a long climactic passage that ties things together when the real Father Manolo, now a married man working in the publishing industry, re-enters the lives of the director and his star.
One more character plays an important role in Bad Education, but Juan's emergence represents a twist in the plot. Suffice it to say it's no accident -- and also not really too helpful or valuable -- that the title sequence and throbbing music at the beginning of Bad Education evoke the Hermann-esque score of Hitchcock's Psycho, and that later, as two of the characters leave a film noir festival, one of them remarks, "It's like all the films were talking about us."
Almodovar has a difficult time not seeing life in relation to the films that have influenced his, and in Bad Education, he still plays with genres and his love of melodrama, the tendency that marred such promising recent works as Talk to Her and All About My Mother. Only this time the melodrama is real, as opposed to camp, with higher thematic stakes.
You can cluck if you like at the story of priestly abuse, although we've seen myriad TV dramas explore the issue. Or you can get all wrapped up in the whispered intrigue of who-dun-what-and-why as the characters' histories unfold with Almodovarian twists. Bad Education is a bittersweet and sometimes elegiac film, and very strongly performed, especially by the instinctive, multi-layered Bernal (Y Tu Mama También), the emerging young Mexican actor with a lean body and an oblique face that (as the song goes) seems to cause a panic with every pan (in truth, he has some very bad angles).
But really, the plot, characters, acting and visual style of Bad Education are the least interesting things about it. Almodovar said many years ago that he opposed the outing of closeted homosexuals because they're emotionally troubled people who need counseling rather than scrutiny or scorn. Now, in Bad Education, he dramatizes the variety of ways to be gay: For the priest, the closet creates an insidious abuser; for Juan, half in and half out, self-hatred leads to mortal sin; for an abused gay child, it's an emotionally scarred life of drugs, prostitution, theft and blackmail; and for Enrique, who's open about his sexuality, there's success as an artist and a life of "passion" (the film's last word, which literally fills the screen).
In its flashback scenes, Bad Education contrasts the priest's corruption of same-sex desire to the guilt-free naturalness of Enrique and Ignacio as they discover theirs. It's a simple message, and Almodovar's heart is clearly, deeply in it. None of this is much fun, like his crowd-pleasing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but then I never found Almodovar's gaudy camp to be terribly funny anyway. No American director could make a film like Bad Education and have audiences embrace it the way Spanish audiences embrace Almodovar. So the buried message of his film might be how the world's oldest free society has squandered its liberty, while one of the world's newest -- which is inching toward same-sex marriage -- continues to teach us how to embrace it. In Spanish, with subtitles.