Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004) and the Artistry of Spanish Queer Cinema

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Bad Education/La mala educación (2004) [Source: IMDb]

Pedro Almodóvar’s film Bad Education, originally titled in Spanish as La mala educación, was released in 2004.

Here is an English translation of one of the lines spoken (in Spanish) by Ignacio, one of the film’s central characters:

“I’m thinking that just this moment I lost my faith. And without faith, I no longer believe in God or hell. And if I don’t believe in hell I’m no longer afraid. And if I’m unafraid I am capable of anything” (Smith, 181).

The sociopolitical background of the film

  1. Bad Education released the same year as the terrorist bombings and massacres on commuter trains in Madrid in 2004, and there were countless ways in which both Spanish citizens as well as foreigners such as those of Ecuadorian and Kurdish communities within the city mourned and displayed support for the affected.
  2. During this period, Almodóvar had accumulated a vast, diverse audience over his almost twenty-five-year old career at the time.
  3. Though Almodóvar was often considered “apolitical”, the film opened at an unfortunate time given the disturbing social atmosphere and in the light of Almodóvar’s outspoken but infamous opinions on the Partido Popular, or the People’s Party.
  4. It is important to understand the significance of Bad Education’s Spanish title, La mala educación, which is that in English it translates to both “bad education” as well as “bad behavior”. Perhaps this is testimonial to the topic of child abuse by the hands of Catholic priests, a theme deeply embedded in the film’s narrative, and one that Spain took long to reconcile with.
  5. The film’s narrative structure could be likened to Spain’s historical timeline because of parallels with political events that held significance in the country’s turn of events. The transition from 1980 to 1977 and finally to 1964 is reminiscent of the shift to democracy, as well as the cultural renaissance or post-Franco movida that came well after the dictatorship in the preceding decades.

The plot and setting’s transforming quality could be attributed to the effect of the film shuttling “between metropolitan glamour, provincial squalor, and rural repression. (Smith, 184)”

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Bad Education/La mala educación (2004) [Source: IMDb]

Breaking down the film’s visual style

Almodóvar had great attention to intricate visual detail, especially to that of the film’s color palette. A sequence within the film’s visual style has been described as the following:

“A scarlet shirt rhymes with a vintage Citroën, while in another an orange shirt chimes with the walls of a cinema that is screening a season of film noir” (Smith, 185).

Furthermore, after viewing these color-oriented details of the harmony between the film’s costume and set design, one could focus on the form of the film’s production design. Visual and tactile imagery could be used to support this interpretation of the film’s exuberant form. For example, Smith illustrates the hotel rooms as to have been:

“transformed by rich red drapes and gilded chiaroscuro (Gael is tenderly backlit once more); squalid junky apartments [are] enlivened by eccentric mosaics encrusted in the walls” (185).

These details are further attributed not to accident but to intention, for in Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic universe, every detail is noteworthy.

Another significant artistic detail in the film’s background is the prevalence of Cubist paintings on the walls in most of the internal settings. This detail’s ubiquity in the film’s frames could be justified with the understanding that in the 20th century, the European art scene experienced a flourishing of the Cubist painting style. This perhaps influenced Almodóvar and seeped its way into Bad Education’s bold, flamboyant set and costume design. In particular, this is significantly evident in Enrique’s production company room with its vibrant walls filled with paintings, many of which appeared to follow the Cubist style. Almodóvar’s attentiveness to elaborate and artistic elements define Bad Education’s iconic costume and set design.

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Bad Education/La mala educación (2004) [Source: IMDb]

Cinematography and editing are often the backbone of a film’s themes

It is also important to note the significance of the film’s cinematography and editing. There are certain details in the framing that emphasize the prevalence of certain horrors, particularly the black shoulder of the priest which envelops the screen to reveal an act of child abuse. This horrifying experience of abuse in the film is further highlighted by Almodóvar’s decision to opt for a gradual fade to black, attempting to not get too close to the disturbing image of child abuse. But elsewhere he goes for extremely hard cuts.

There are a variety of other types of shots in the film that highlight Almodóvar’s artistic intentions, which could be understood by dissecting the various camera angles. Here are a few examples as laid out by Smith:

“A high-angle shot of a hundred anonymous boys doing gymnastics (186)”, a “close-up of child Enrique, frozen by desire and loss as his beloved Ignacio is taken away from him (186)”.

The occasionally fast-paced editing of the film is addressed right after Ignacio begs Enrique for the title role of his movie, which then immediately cuts directly to the director engaged in vigorous sexual intercourse with the actor, overlapped with a voice-over from Enrique. While these elements are indicative of stylistic nuances Almodóvar perhaps intended to achieve, one must also shed light on the device that contributes to the narrative structure and transitioning of the plot and setting. The device that aids audiences in comprehending the lapsing to-and-fro between 1980, 1977 and 1964 is the use of dissolves which helps the plot to fluidly transition between past and present.

According to Smith, this is particularly evident in the scene where “Ignacio-Zahara and his best friend Paca (Javier Cámara, from Talk to Her) in 1977 are super-imposed over the page of typescript that tells their tale in 1980. (186)”

The retrospective scenes, or the ones from 1964, are shots in a much smaller frame than the ones that are more recent in the film’s timeline. Perhaps Almodóvar’s intention behind this literal framing was to encapsulate the more nostalgic, cinematic essence of the scenes of the past, hence distinguishing them from the wider, clearer narrative present. One could potentially designate an important role and relevant scene to every cinematographic and editing device utilized in Bad Education’s narrative, characterization and Almodóvar’s artistic intentions.

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Bad Education/La mala educación (2004) [Source: IMDb]

Conclusion

Almodóvar’s eye for detail, the significance of cinematographic and editing devices to the film’s narrative and stylistic structure as well as certain specific artistic allusions such as the notability of Cubist art styles in the film’s background, and other interpretations of its framing are essential in appreciating Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education.

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