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Thomas Wartenberg thinks darkly fraternal thoughts while watching a movie by Pedro Almodovar about sibling rivalry and the appalling results of Bad Education.
As someone who has had trouble with his younger brother, I've been struck by how widespread the theme of brotherly betrayal is in narrative fiction. So, for example, watching a performance of Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It, performed by Shakespeare and Company in the hills of Western Massachusetts this past summer, I realized that, although the major focus of the play is on the nature of love, there are two spiteful brothers who knowingly wrong their siblings. The idea of sibling rivalry is one that most of us accept almost without thinking, as if the presence of two children in a family gives rise to animosity as a matter of course. And it isn't surprising that children who have no choice but to share the love of their parents wind up developing a competitive attitude, each seeing the other as depriving him of the affection he believes he alone deserves. But this doesn't explain why brothers are so prone to this form of enmity, nor why they are willing to act in heinous ways to assure getting what they take to be their just deserts.
As I thought about this – spurred both by Shakespeare and events in my own life – I realized that there is a further issue: why do brothers, especially younger ones, seek to usurp the place that the elder sibling inherits by virtue of his age? As early as the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, we find a younger sib trying to take the place of his older brother, as if the competition between them will only be laid to rest when he has not just defeated his brother but actually taken his place and, in a sense, become the person the older one was destined to become.
These thoughts were brought to mind as I watched Pedro Almodovar's masterful and haunting film, Bad Education (2004). The film's title, though, seems a bit of a misnomer, for despite the presence in the film of a bad educator – namely Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) – my attention was focused on the main character Ignacio Rodriquez's (Francisco Boira) younger brother, Juan (Gael García Bernal). This is because Juan is a truly malicious character, who will stop at nothing to get what he thinks is rightfully his. And while As You Like It dodges the issue of why brothers so often seek to usurp the place of their sibling, Bad Education is concerned with precisely that question.
Almodovar skillfully employs the device of a film within a film as a means of structuring the film's narrative. Unlike the use of this technique in many other films, however, Bad Education's interior film, albeit fictional, reveals the essential elements of the plot of framing story that are, in the context of this fiction, taken to be real. What happens is this: Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez) is a successful filmmaker who is having trouble coming up with a project suitable for his next film. When a young man claiming to be his old boyhood friend and lover, Ignacio, arrives on his doorstep, it appears fated, for he brings with him a story that is eminently suitable to be the basis of Enrique's new film. Ignacio tells Enrique that he is an actor, so that he has changed his name to Angel and he wants to get out of his theater troupe and into film acting by playing the main character in Enrique's filming of the story, Zahara. Although Enrique is dubious, he doesn't reject Angel and later that night actually reads the story. As he does so, the film within the film presents his imaginative reconstruction of the story as he is reading it, but what we see is also a thinly veiled reconstruction of the story of Ignacio's life and early death.
The story/film concerns Ignacio's abuse by his teacher-priest, Father Manolo, and his premature death. As a young boy, Ignacio becomes the object of Manolo's illicit sexual desire for him. Here, Almodovar is clearly reflecting on the recent spate of sex scandals involving priests. However, in this case, Ignacio has already begun to explore his homosexuality with his classmate and close friend, Enrique. So it is not homosexuality that is presented as problematic, but the abuse of power that the priest exercises to satisfy his lust.
When Manolo discovers Ignacio and Enrique together in the bathroom of the school one evening, he tells the frightened Ignacio that he will not be punished, but that Enrique will be expelled. Ignacio offers to satisfy Manolo's desire if he won't expel Enrique. Although Manolo takes up Ignacio's offer, he soon betrays him by nonetheless expelling Enrique.
In one sense, Bad Education can be seen as portraying the way in which a horrific experience such as this can pave the way for a person's moral decline. The Ignacio we see as an adult is, as Manolo himself tells Enrique, no longer the same person they both loved. What Manolo seems unable to acknowledge, however, is that it was his abuse and betrayal of Ignacio that was responsible for his decline into prostitution, drugs, and blackmail.
An interesting twist to the plot emerges, however, when, in the framing story, Enrique goes to visit Ignacio's mother, only to find out that Angel is actually Ignacio's brother, Juan. Although we have known that Angel was not Ignacio, this revelation is quite startling because we don't understand why Angel has perpetrated this hoax, except that the story he is peddling was actually written by Ignacio.
After we see the filming of the final scene of Enrique's film of Ignacio's story, Manolo, now a business man, comes to talk to Enrique. He reveals the awful truth: that Ignacio was actually killed by both Juan and himself. Ignacio, who had been blackmailing Manolo, discovered that Juan and Manolo had become lovers; the two feared that he would continue to blackmail them even though Ignacio had in fact checked himself into a heroin clinic to try and kick his deadly habit. Juan planned his own brother's murder, supplying Manolo with an overdose of heroin that ironically killed his brother just as he was preparing to enter the detox program, as his final letter to Enrique testifies. Juan does reveal a pang of conscience when he tells Manolo that he, Manolo, will have to do the actual killing as Ignacio is, after all, his brother and so he is pained by having to kill him.
In the meantime, Enrique and Juan have become lovers. When Enrique learns what Angel/Juan has done, he sends him packing. As he does so, Juan's only explanation of his behavior comes in an outburst to Enrique that he doesn't know what it's like to grow up in a small town with a brother “like that”. What he means is a transvestite, for that is what Ignacio was. But even though this is the source of Juan's hatred for Ignacio, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that his own fixation with playing Zahara, the fictional version of Ignacio in Enrique's film, reveals his own deep-seated desire to do the very same thing.
The interesting thing about the film, then, is that it portrays the deeply ambivalent attitude that Juan has to his brother. For although he consciously hates him enough to kill him, Juan not only masquerades as Ignacio in order to gain access to Enrique and a job, but he also transforms himself into Ignacio so that he will be able to play him in the film. (This is registered in the film by having a different actor play Ignacio as portrayed by Juan in the interior film and Juan in the frame.)
What I think Almodovar is exploring here is the psychological roots of brotherly discord. At the same time that a brother like Juan can believe that he simply hates his own brother for making his life miserable, there may be a real identification with that brother and, hence, a desire to be just like him. If that's true, then the root of the hatred and the source of the actions that usurp that brother's place are an unconscious desire to become that brother. Overt disgust and hatred cover up not just love but identification with the object one hates.
For my part, given my relationship with my own brother, I found this all very illuminating. But I don't think one need be the victim of a spiteful younger brother to find this a most compelling film. It is made with a confidence and skillfulness that is very rare in filmmaking today. I was completely absorbed by the film and wanted to immediately watch it again, to see the power of the performances as well as the narrative. If you get a chance, go see Bad Education. You might learn something illuminating.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2004
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.