Pedro Almodovar Corrupted By The Church

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has long been known for his colorful, touching and often hilarious tales of people on the fringe: transvestites, neurotic actresses, drug addicts and wayward nuns. In his latest picture, "Bad Education," which opened the Cannes Film Festival last week, Almodovar tackles one of the greatest taboos of all: sexual abuse by priests. Set in a Roman Catholic boys' boarding school in Spain--much like the one Almodovar himself attended--"Bad Education" recounts the love that the literature teacher has for one of his students--a love that turns into sexual abuse. Ten years later, the tortured boy has become a drug-addled transvestite, desperate to go clean and become a woman. It is a poignant and disturbing film, one of Almodovar's finest. Last week in Cannes, the director spoke to journalists, including NEWSWEEK's Dana Thomas, about faith and his disgust with the Catholic Church. Excerpts:

THOMAS: Why did you lose your faith in God so young?
ALMODOVAR: From the age of 9, when I first starting attending this school, I asked myself many of the questions you ask yourself throughout life--where do we come from? What is our purpose here on earth?--and I decided to give the priests and religion a chance to give me these answers. I waited a year but they never came. I'm not conscious of ever having faith, but the sense of not having faith, of becoming an agnostic, came at 10 years old. I would have loved to have faith, but because it's something irrational--it's almost like a gift from God--I think God selects the people he's going to give faith to and I was just not chosen.

What generated your mistrust of the church?
In the first place, God in my childhood eyes never manifested himself, and his representatives on earth only gave me reasons to mistrust them. I think the worst thing that has happened to the Catholic religion, which is a wonderful invention, is having priests teach. I personally was not abused by any of these priests, but because in school we all told each other everything, we knew this was going on. Many of the children had been abused, and we knew who those children were. So when I saw the priests were touching the body of Christ and the blood of Christ, I thought those hands were too dirty to perform the miracle of consecration.

How do you view the Catholic Church's condemnation of homosexuality?
I personally am completely anticlerical and manifest myself ferociously against the church's position toward homosexuality. There is a great paradox in the church: it continues to portray homosexuality as a disease, yet the percentage of homosexuals in the church is huge. I would almost say seminaries are schools for future homosexuals. The essence of this problem is the vow of celibacy, which I think the church has to confront. If there wasn't the obligation to be celibate, I am sure the abuses would be reduced by 80 percent.

Yet despite your horror at the sexual crimes committed by priests against children, the molesting priest in your film is at times quite sympathetic, and eventually pathetic.
I think it is interesting to describe the characters of these priests in all their complexity to see how the villains can also become the victims. The fact that he has felt love for something forbidden doesn't mean that love is any less real or less strong; it's just that the subject of that love is forbidden. It's good to see in his eyes the desire and pleasure but also the sense of shame because he is conscious that his love is forbidden. His tragedy is he cannot do anything to avoid it.

How did you keep your personal anger out of the film?
I started this script a long time ago--it has been a slow genesis--and fortunately I was able to distance myself from the subject with the passage of time. In the first versions of the script I was much more vindictive and furious.

In the past few years the subject of molestation by priests has been explosive in the United States, but hardly discussed at all in Europe. Why do you think this is and will it change?
I think the problem has the same dimensions--there are not fewer cases of abuse [in Europe] than in the United States--but there are fewer cases reported because it carries a stigma of shame for the victim. Quite often the children will not confess this abuse to their parents because the parents would be ashamed.

Do you think your film will help?
The more that people hear about other cases--that 11,000 cases have been reported in the United States--the more people will denounce it. I don't know if my film will help. I hope it does.

Do you expect a reaction from the Vatican?
We'll see. It happened before with "Dark Habits" [his 1983 film about dissolute nuns]. I'd prefer not to get into a fight with them. The most intelligent thing they could do is remain discreet. Otherwise I'll need to sharpen my sword.