When treated to the films of Pedro Almodóvar, I can’t help but think the very same thing each time: they’re fucked-up (in the best possible sense). With Almodóvar you know you’re going to get a film that’s most likely seedy, part-philosophical, passionate about film, invested in romance and sex, asks questions about identity and revels in Spanish culture. And who else out there can claim to do even half of that?
The most overtly LGBT-relevant director since John Waters (who is even more fucked-up) has a number of themes that run through his work like a thread: identity, passion, obsession, gender, sexuality, cinema and revenge. Though the only previous works of his I’ve encountered are Law of Desire (1987), his most recent effort The Skin I Live In (2011) and Talk To Her (2002), it’s safe to say that each of these films heavily features most of the above subjects.
For the next few weeks we’ll look at three of his most popular works, starting with Bad Education from 2004. It was the first ever Spanish film to be given the honour – if that’s the right word – of opening the 57th Cannes Film Festival. Dealing with various issues (as his pictures tend to do), the most succinct way of describing it is an initially one-sided recollection of an abused childhood by Catholic priests via a film-within-a-film. Confused? You should be.
What this inevitably leads to is another Almodóvar-ism which, like the rest of the film, is something I’m cautious of revealing much information about for fear of giving anything away. Part of the wonder and magic of his films – be it Talk to Her or The Skin I Live In or any other – is the utter shock of the audience given the unexpected direction of the plot and the absurdness and extremity of the unfolding narrative.
But the detail in question, in this instance, is not totally unexpected. It’s a plot twist that you can partially see coming and partly don’t want to think about. Though not the most extreme in and of itself as far as Pedro’s twists go, the repercussions it has for the characters in terms of their actions and the highlighting of extremes to which they’re willing to go seemingly know no bounds. One of them even remarks that he’d be willing to go much further, presumably hunting glory and money, which is a worrying thought when you reach the end and realise exactly what it is he’s already done.
The story strand that deals with the paedophilic nature of the priesthood is something which the director can presumably relate to (hopefully not too intimately) from his experiences of growing up in La Mancha and based on his time at a Catholic boarding school. As it happens, these elements of the film give us a little bit of everything, including a few laughs which aren’t exactly what his pictures are known for. But some pithy one-liners get more than a giggle; no easy feat in a subtitled film.
Almodóvar often creates characters with an intense and creative edge – writers, directors, actors, models – and Bad Education is no different. The film-within-a-film angle that it provides gives us a unique, twisted insight into the history of the characters and, essentially, the respective professions of the individuals hint at what is yet to come. This is never truer than when it comes to Gael Garcia Bernal’s character (who – if you enjoy seeing so much of – gives an equally sexually-energised performance in Y Tu Mama Tambien) as his desire to act is more than a career but is instead borderline fundamentalism.
Though this is an eclectic film that bounces around many moments, moods, timelines and ideas, what remains thereafter is an oddly personal and punchy take on a number of subjects ranging from the infidelity of religious figures to sexual empowerment with the effect both of these are able to have on identity (or an ensuing lack of it). The brief and modest moments of innocence will resonate, particularly with a gay audience.
From the innocent sounds of an adolescent’s Spanish version of ‘Moon River’ to the cinema trip that evokes passion in the arts, bodies and hearts of these developing youngsters, Bad Education demonstrates what happens when worlds collide; the incompatibility of strict regimes of Franco and Catholicism pitted against the sexual freedom and liberation of the arts; a new generation with different ideas to a middle-aged, middle-class people with ancient values.
This film is perverted on every level and represents a warped dramatisation of the defining period of the life of two people which, under a less capable director, would turn into a flabby mess. But with Almodóvar you know what you’re going to get: a beautifully-crafted, wonderfully weird, explicit and raunchy fucked-up political, societal and philosophical film of ordered chaos. It refuses to hold back, and as a result it engages, excites and envelops its audience with its shocking yet fabulous events. What more could you want?
Next week: All About My Mother…