by Manuel Betancourt
Two Spanish schoolboys go to the local movie theater to catch the new Sara Montiel flick, Esa mujer. We see them excitedly watching the Spanish and Hollywood actress on screen. “Que guapa es Sara!” one exclaims upon seeing her draped in a bright purple ensemble arriving at a nunnery. The improbable, potentially laughable (and camp-ready) plot of the film comes to a climactic point when Soledad de Jesus (Montiel), a former missionary nun who left the order after being raped by natives and became a well-known singer, returns to visit her former sanctuary. Seeing her now, Soledad’s former Mother Superior can’t reconcile the glamorous woman in front of her with the nun she once knew. Soon after, with eyes still fixated on Montiel, the boys begin pleasuring one another under the cover of darkness.
This scene, from Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, always takes my breath away. Its bullishness is only matched by its tenderness—admittedly a word you wouldn’t think could suitably describe a scene about two middle schoolers jerking each other off in public. But therein lies the Spanish director’s gift. This is, after all, the person who featured a “General Erection” contest in his first ever film, later named a nymphomaniac character Sexilia, and all but ushered the NC-17 rating into the U.S. with his aptly titled bondage rom-com Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. He’s made a career out of both trivializing and emboldening characters and storylines who may be (and have been) punchlines or cautionary tales in the history of cinema. Where other directors have sought to sanitize gay identity, crafting easily accessible films about characters who all but demand our sympathy, Almodóvar has often gone in the opposite direction. His films edge into uncomfortable territory, puncturing through what in Spanish we call “pudor”—a sense of modesty or shame—and Bad Education, which at its core is concerned with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is no different.
Alone at the movies, sharing a decidedly queer attachment to Montiel and to one another, Almodóvar’s schoolboys skirt the line between impish innocence and adult sexuality, refusing to see one as necessarily excluding the other. The director tellingly cuts between the boys’ wide-eyed faces illuminated by the glare of the screen and their silhouetted backs once their hands reach over to one another. This juxtaposition, between the earnest engagement of the boys with the over-the-top melodrama projected on the big screen and the covert yet quite public queer sexuality that the tableau depends on, is what makes the scene all the more transgressive. It brings together the discourses that surround the complex relationship gay men have had with cinema throughout the twentieth century, collapsing them into a moment of ecstatic pleasure at the movies.
Long confined to what Vito Russo cannily called “the celluloid closet,” gay men spent the better part of cinema’s first century recoiling from the loathsome or ridiculous representations made available to them. Not wanting to identify with the sissies or the villains that were debased in equal measure, gay men swooned in private for the dashing leading men on screen. Some even found solace in the strong-willed starlets who knew how to hit a note, strike a pose, and light a cigarette in black and white melodramas and technicolor musicals. That, we are told, is what gay men did back then. Before coming out and becoming pride-bearing individuals, gay men had no choice but to embrace those pleasures marked as shameful. This narrative compartmentalizes two interconnected (and often looked down upon) stereotypes that we’ve supposedly outgrown since the infamous Stonewall riots of 1969: the young gay boy who’s obsessed with Judy Garland and the grown man who’s more than happy to meet some strangers down a winding brick road. Rather than wave a flag of pride or recognition, Almodóvar’s Bad Education, much like his entire filmography, lunges instead for a seedy and fabulous underworld that refuses—for better and for worse—to be easily co-opted into the identity politics project that still looms over North American discussions of gay male popular culture. That’s why the scene fascinates me so much, for its unabashed embrace of the shamed and shameful pleasures that are often sidelined in contemporary discussions of minority visibility and representation.
Love of cinema brings these two young boys together and both convert their fascination with those figures up on screen into decidedly queer artistic endeavors. Ignacio grows up to be a Montiel drag impersonator. Enrique becomes a gay film director. In this way, they function as surrogates for Almodóvar himself, whose career examines his twinned interest on queer sexuality and cinema appreciation. It was during his time at a Catholic school that the Spanish director turned to Hollywood cinema to inoculate the bad education of what he called the “the squalid and slimy whisperings of [his] spiritual director.” “If by watching Johnny Guitar, Picnic, Splendor in the Grass or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I deserved to go to hell,” he wrote in the autobiographical collection of essays, Patty Diphusa, “I had no alternative but to embrace the heat of its embers.” Young Pedro was already fascinated by films that spoke about illicit desires and which featured strong female roles amidst queer subtext. Almodóvar’s own filmography would eventually mobilize the director’s attachment to these films to create a rich vocabulary that would (like Ignacio and Enrique) recreate those pivotal moments at the movies. This autobiographical aspect of the film is what makes that movie theater scene resonate so much. Almodóvar asks us to go back with him to the origin story of his own moviemaking career, confronting us not as viewers but as fellow moviegoers.
More importantly, Almodóvar’s aesthetic marks this moment as pivotal in the film, the narrative hinge of his increasingly intricate plot. That schoolboy scene at the theater, which one initially assumes is a simple flashback, is instead a fictional recreation doubly mediated by the film itself. Before we visit the movie theater with the boys in the ’60s, Bad Education sets the narrative in motion in the 1980s with a man claiming to be Ignacio. He’s come to visit Enrique at his production company, urging him to read his short story “La visita.” The autobiographical text details Ignacio’s return to his old village as a transexual Montiel impersonator who calls herself Zahara. There, she meets with Father Manolo at his old catholic school, in essence borrowing the very plot of the scene we glimpse from Montiel’s Esa mujer. As Enrique reads the story, we see the scene played out: Zahara hopes to blackmail Father Manolo with, not coincidentally, a short story titled “La visita,” where she has written down the priest’s indiscretions with him as a young boy. We then plunge into Zahara’s short story as Father Manolo reads on and we see young Ignacio and Enrique at school. The scene at the movies (“I owe my best memories to the Olympo Cinema,” the narrator informs us) is part of this second nested narrative and is visually presented to us as distinct from the rest of the film by being shot and projected in a different ratio. Further muddling things is the fact that Bad Education is in itself a cinematic adaptation of Almodóvar’s own 1970s short story titled “La visita,” a text he’d already incorporated into his 1987 film Law of Desire, where his muse Carmen Maura (playing a transwoman called Tina) confronted the priest who’d seduced her as a choirboy in her youth.
Only once we reach Ignacio’s short story’s climax (where Father Manolo and another priest murder Zahara before she can publish her libelous text), do we learn that what we’ve been witnessing is, in fact, Enrique’s film being shot in the 1980s present. Twice removed then, the story of Ignacio, Enrique, and Father Manolo in the 1960s is initially presented as unreliably rooted in their older counterparts’ memories. Yet the last act of Bad Education reveals them to have been cinematic retellings of a fictionalized version of those childhood memories.
Cinema’s ability to inspire and recreate scenes of queer sexuality becomes both subtext and text in Almodóvar’s feature. While his later films have been criticized for being “made not of flesh and blood, but of celluloid,” (per Variety’s review of 2009’s Broken Embraces) the distinction between the corporeal and the cinematic have instead become irrevocably intertwined in Almodóvar’s late filmography. Memories of and at the cinema become indistinguishable from cinema itself.
In this, Bad Education is only the very limit of the Almodovarian project. In the cover of darkness, two quintessentially and usually distinct gay stereotypes—the diva fan who fawns over starlets and finds solace in their glittering presence, and the promiscuous trick who relishes the darkness of the theaters where these divas reside—collide into one another, producing something altogether odder. Queerer, even. Almodóvar, once an enfant terrible of Spanish cinema, has repurposed his own childhood into a template for surprisingly transgressive films. From Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom which opens with a sexual encounter on top of Superman collectible stickers, to his most recent film, I’m So Excited, which was a zany orgiastic mile high club comedy, the director has broken barriers and defied labels, adhering only to the law of desire that guides his sensibility. His films promote Frank O’Hara’s plea to mothers of America in “Ave Maria” (1964) to “let your kids go to the movies,” a pastime where your soul would “grow in darkness, embossed by silvery images,” which could also be a sexually instructive experience. Or, in Almodóvar’s words, a welcome lesson in deliciously bad education.
Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer obsessed with all things pop culture. His work has appeared in Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books and Jarry Magazine.