Pedro Confronts the Ghosts of Francoby Hirsh Sawhney
Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education
In Pedro Almodóvar’s 1983 film Dark Habits, a nightclub singer named Yolanda decides to kick her dope habit in a convent. But the nuns in charge of her rehabilitation are anything but pious. One is a lesbian heroin addict, another trips on acid, and a third writes smutty novels.
Dark Habits is a Buñuelian farce that seeks to subvert Spain’s hypocritical socioreligious traditions in the aftermath of the brutality and religiosity of the Franco regime. Much of Almodóvar’s early work, as epitomized by this film, attempts to redefine Spanish culture in terms of the country’s increasingly rebellious urban centers, in which drugs and homosexuality are more topical than the Catholic Church. In attempting to rescue “Spanishness” from the clutches of conservatism, Almodóvar’s first films are outrageous tragicomedies filled with an invective, alienating disregard for tradition.
Spanish society progressively freed itself from the yoke of Franco’s legacy in the decade following the release of Dark Habits, and Almodóvar’s movies ceased to be harsh indictments of the social order. In his later films, like Talk to Her, the director instead revolted against conventional notions of good and evil while at the same time making films that were both more dramatically engaging and more emotionally evocative.
Twenty years after Dark Habits, when Almodóvar began shooting Bad Education, Spain had once again been visited by the specter of totalitarianism—in the form of Prime Minister José María Aznar, whose family was closely connected to the Franco regime. Thus, in his fifteenth film, Almodóvar appropriately revisited his scrutiny of the Catholic church and Spanish culture during its continued transition from dictatorship to democracy.
Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) is a successful filmmaker searching for a new movie idea in 1980s Madrid when an attractive young actor (Gael García Bernal) walks into his office. The actor tells Enrique that he’s Ignacio, an estranged boyhood friend. Ignacio—or Angel as he demands to be called—has written a short story called “The Visit” and implores Enrique to convert it into a movie.
While reading “The Visit,” Enrique realizes that it is based on their childhood together in a Catholic convent school during the Franco era. The two boys in the story are lovers, and one of them, Ignacio, is sexually abused by the school’s head priest, Father Manolo. In the story Ignacio grows up to be a junkie transvestite named Zahara, also played by García Bernal. Zahara wants money for a sex change and uses a short story she’s written to extort money from the lecherous Father Manolo. Back in 1980s Madrid, Enrique begins to penetrate Ignacio/Angel regularly—and to produce “The Visit,” starring his new lover.
Almodóvar’s film presents viewers with three alternate accounts of the lives of Ignacio, Enrique, and Father Manolo: a short story, a film production, and reality. The lines that separate these conflicting narratives are inevitably obfuscated; the truth is as elusive as each character’s personality and identity. No one in the film can be seen as entirely good or evil, and Almodóvar effectively shatters notions of protagonist versus antagonist. Ignacio/Zahara suffers sexual abuse as a child but later becomes an addict who manipulates and mistreats those around her. Conversely, Father Manolo, a cruel pedophile, ends up a tragic and lonely figure who has been romantically deceived.
By no means the first artist to examine the gray areas of morality, Almodóvar nevertheless does so in a way that is truly contemporary and innovative. García Bernal seamlessly slips between roles as a masculine young actor and an attractive transvestite wearing high heels. The former, Ignacio/Angel, isn’t truly committed to a homosexual or a heterosexual identity, whereas the latter, Ignacio/Zahara, is born a man but really wants to be a woman. García Bernal’s disparate characters call into question anachronistic binary oppositions that are fundamental to mainstream society, such as male versus female and homosexual versus heterosexual.
Transvestites, junkies, and homosexuals are ever-present players in the world of Almodóvar. But whereas Almodóvar’s earlier films—which sought to redefine Spanish culture in terms of such controversial elements—were scathing neorealist satires that lacked mass-audience appeal, Bad Education subverts reactionary traditions with more dramatic artistry and less comic abstraction and anger, making Almodóvar’s iconoclastic vision more accessible to mainstream viewers. It uses the universally palatable genre of film noir not only to promote fluid conceptions of sexuality, gender, and human relationships but also to more effectively scrutinize the dark legacy of the Franco era, a legacy that was dealt a serious blow in Spain’s 2004 elections.