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La Mala Educación

I watched the DVD version of Pedro Almodóvar’s paean to Hitchcock and film noir this weekend, and while it is certainly one of the more well crafted movies I’ve seen in some time, it’s also one of the most virulently anti-Catholic. The story has as its villain a priest in charge of an all boy’s school in the Francofried Spain of the 1960’s. If that adjective seems cumbersome, it’s also important: the way political, moral and artistic power is used or abused is important to every character and plot development in the story. And it is a very good story.

A struggling young actor (Gael García Bernal) shows up at the office of the filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) and announces that he is his old friend from school, Ignacio Zahara. He’s a bit pushy and asks to be called by his stage name ‘Ángel’, but succeeds in getting a few typewritten pages called “The Visit” into the hands of Enrique. Enrique takes the story home to read, and what follows is the most interesting ‘Russian dolls’ narrative I’ve seen or read in some time.

Padre Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) appears at different times violently angry, sad, and confused, all of which renders the moral monster as entirely human. This is quite an achievement. I should add that the molestation is hardly implicit, let alone explicit: the most awful crime in the movie has the pre-pubescent Ignacio singing ‘Moon River’ to the accompaniment of Padre Manolo on guitar. Not the most awful, I guess; when someone shows up years later in Manolo’s office to confront him over the abuse, Manolo’s assistant, Padre José, strangles the poor soul as she tries to make a final confession. Does a priest actually murder someone? Well, yes and no. It’s hard to tell, since this murder actually takes place in a movie within La Mala Educación, directed by Enrique Goded. Whose last name brings to mind the French filmmaker of the 60’s, though one might reasonably conclude that he bears a much closer resemblance to Almodovar himself. Moreover, much of the plot of this movie-within-a-movie is blended with Enrique’s initial reading of the story that is the inspiration for this movie-within-a-movie (including, interestingly enough, the casting), and for all we can tell, La Mala Educación itself. That might be pushing it a bit far, although by the end of the movie it’s clear that Almodovar would like it so far pushed.

Back to that meeting in Fele’s office. Something just doesn’t seem right. One problem is that Ángel just doesn’t seem like his childhood friend. Another is his insistence on being addressed as Ángel. But if he isn’t his old friend, what exactly is he up to? Well, hustling the priest is an important part of the story (or stories) so let’s move on to that. Not so much the way it works in the plot – if I haven’t lost you by now, I’m giving up already – but because it dovetails so nicely with the real horror, which is of course the sexual molestation of young boys by priests.

Again, it’s important to note that the depraved acts themselves are hardly indicated in the movie, much less filmed. The whole thing is very artfully handled, and that whole Russian dolls thing keeps us forever guessing what is fact and what is fiction, or at least what is fiction and what is fiction-within-a-fiction. That being said, this is the creepiest portrayal of a priest I’ve ever seen on film, and Manolo and José as a team might well be the creepiest pair of villains in movie history, period. These priests are Very Bad Men. Of course, two priests do not a Universal Church make, but it’s awfully hard to avoid the conclusion that it is in fact a Very Bad Church. This conclusion seems to be supported by Almodovar’s comments in the director’s commentary track, that he, like the young Enrique, considers himself a hedonist (“someone who likes to have fun”), and that he, like Enrique, doesn’t believe in God.

Well, you don’t have to believe in God in order to believe that the church is an important institution, do you? Of course not. Nor do you have to believe in God to believe hat people are moral beings, and since priests are people too, they are certainly bound by the same moral laws by which you and I and Pedro are bound. And Franco. Franco had power, and it goes without saying that he abused that power. Priests have power, and they can abuse that power. Actors have power, and they can abuse their power. And yes, directors have power and they can abuse their power, and lest you think Almodovar would let himself off the hook, his stand-in is shown delivering some pretty rough sex on the couch to a young man in search of a part. But the real subject of this movie, or at least this paragraph, is priests. So let’s get back to the priests. They’re the ones abusing young boys, after all. They wear frocks that look like dresses, rather than just dresses. They are pedophiles. They are murderers. They are closeted. They are Very Bad Men. Is Evil too strong word? No, it is perhaps not quite strong enough.

In the history of the church there have certainly been priests who were closeted, pedophiles, and even murderers. There have indeed been Evil Priests. Isn’t Almodovar just laying the truth bare? And ‘the truth’ isn’t something that always has to be laid bare, is it? What about the truth of a good story? And this is a Very Good Story. One can’t say for sure, but there is certainly the possiblity that this story has its genesis in real life events. Real life abuse. What’s so anti-Catholic about that? And the movie is very artfully made. Passionately made, as Almodovar himself has stated. So what’s wrong with this picture?

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