Pride Month: Bad Education (2004)
There’s been a debate within queer cinema criticism about whether queer stories becoming more mainstream is making them more heteronormative. Not just in terms of theme and narrative, but the yielding to conventional filmmaking and catering towards straight audiences’ sensibilities. This debate isn’t new but has ramped up with the success of Love, Simon and Call Me By Your Name, two queer films with conventionally attractive white male leads. Both films touch on gay desire in groundbreaking ways, but some queer critics still find that they shy away from being radical.
I disagree with that criticism (especially with Call Me By Your Name), but it’s not hard to see a difference between those films and Pedro Almodovar’s anarchic, unapologetically gay movies. His 2004 film Bad Education (La mala educacion) is a rebellious film in many ways. Almodovar plays with metafiction, narratives within narratives, and multiple flashbacks in a story about pedophilia, murder, drug addiction, transsexuality, Catholicism, and cinema. The film shifts narratives and narrators, with Almodovar highlighting the theme of perception; both between characters and between himself and his audience.
Bad Education begins with a creatively stumped director Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez) who scans headlines for inspiration. He gets a surprise visit from his childhood friend Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), an actor going by the stage name Angel. Ignacio has a short story called “The Visit,” which is partly based on their life together at an all-boys Catholic school including a tricky relationship with the abusive priest Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). The story continues with a fictional second half with the two boys as adults. Intrigued but suspicious of Ignacio, Enrique reads the story and Almodovar takes us into the story within the film.
One of the most striking things about Bad Education is that there are hardly any cisgender women in the film at all, aside from a few minor characters. This is a story about men, and the dichotomy of identity in queer spaces. The protagonist of “The Visit” is Zahara, who would probably identify as a transgender woman now. In the film, Zahara (born Ignacio) is gendered as a man who is a pre-sex change transvestite or transsexual. I did cringe at that, but the film does take place before, during, and after the Spanish transition to democracy following the death of military dictator Francisco Franco. Spain’s Catholic moralism probably did not allow for the fluidity of gender identity at the time.
More importantly, however, Zahara’s double gender identities reflect the dualities within most of the characters. They often inhabit different characters within the film and in “The Visit.” How we perceive others, how we look at people, how our gaze is reflected back. The backdrop of filmmaking is a symbol for how the characters construct their own narratives and how they react to being the looker and being looked at. Almodovar’s camera, with frequent cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, puts a piercing male gaze upon other men. The gaze is erotic or suspicious or skeptical, often all three at the same time. Much like we saw with Call Me By Your Name or films like The Talented Mr. Ripley, the homoerotic male gaze can be thrilling and defiant just by virtue of its rarity. And the homoerotic male gaze is complicated, especially when it is illicit and diminished by society.
Bad Education exists in the grey area between film noir and melodrama. The look of the film is inspired by the 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk, with some homages to Alfred Hitchcock. Almodovar takes these influences and filters them through his gay as fuck lens to create a tantalizingly strange and mysterious film. Almodovar’s gaudy colors, over the top production design, his melodramatic plots with thriller elements, and his loud, complex characters make him a unashamedly gay filmmaker with films like Law of Desire, All About My Mother, and I’m So Excited, among others. Bad Education is one of my favorites of his career because of its intricate storytelling, compelling, troubled characters, and its splashy aesthetic.