I’m a big Almodovar fan and was quite enjoying this film for its obvious merits until an idea hit me: this film is a very subtle take on the national trauma of civil war that Spain has still not come to terms with. Although the Spanish Civil War and Francoist regime, which ruled the country from 1939 to 1975, are never mentioned, the business of the narrative are still very much wrapped up in that long, nightmarish episode of Spanish history.
Unlike Germany, Spain has not really grappled with its fascist past in a meaningful manner. The issue of the war and Franco’s regime is still very touchy, Francoist imagery can still be found all over the country, war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Franco’s regime were never persecuted, and there is a sentiment of wanting to forget about it that leads to a festering wound that just won’t heal.
Enter Bad Education (and there will be some spoilers ahead). Ostensibly, the film consists of several narratives from several perspectives dealing with the abuse of boys in a Catholic school in the 1960s, which defines the later lives of the victims. One of the victims, Enrique, becomes a film director while the other, Ignacio, becomes a drug-addicted transvestite whose aspiring-actor brother, Juan, conspires with the former priest who abused the boys and ultimately steals Igancio’s identity in order to land a dream role in Enrique’s film based on a brief memoir about the abuse written by Ignacio and turned into a screenplay by Juan. Confused? It is a puzzle of a film, for sure.
However, while there is much to be said about the topic of abuse in the Catholic Church, what got me thinking about the Spanish Civil War angle was the fact that the “present” of the film, the year that the main body of the narrative takes place, is 1980. The events that describe the boys’ school experience take place in 1964, with some other action occurring around 1977. The flashbacks blend into each other and are sometimes shown as genuine memories, other times shown as fictionalized memories (when Enrique reads Juan’s script), and still other times shown as memoirs within memoirs (when Juan lifts Ignacio’s actual memoirs and inserts them as a story-within-a-story in his script).
Now, the action of the film could have easily taken place in 2004, when the film was made, and still have been about abuse in the Catholic Church and the puzzle film that it is. However, by placing the main action in 1980, Almodovar places the flashbacks in the heart of the Franco era and this is an intentional move. Add to that, the Catholic Church was one of the strongest supporters and beneficiaries of Franco’s regime (remember, at one point in the film Enrique says to Juan, as they work on the script, that the Catholic Church is essentially capable of murder). Furthermore, as I mentioned above, the historical amnesia associated with the national trauma of the civil war lends itself to interpreting the various flashbacks and memories within the film to a process of trying to properly contextualize, memorialize, and account for the war and the fascist regime that followed.
In this interpretation, the trauma inflicted upon Enrique and Ignacio when they were boys becomes akin to the deep-seated trauma of the Spanish nation that has been repressed and swept into a corner, much the same way that abuse claims in the Church have been for decades. And efforts to take responsibility for the past, to address the crimes of the Franco regime, and come to terms with a dark episode in Spain’s past find themselves, in this film, as the labyrinth of stories-within-stories told by victims and perpetrators of crime until the ultimate truth and motivations for actions are unknowable and essentially come down to who you are willing to believe.