SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: TEACHERS WHO ARE VERY FOND ...
This is the twenty-second chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Teachers who are very fond …
A similar story to “ANTHRACITE” occurs in “LA VILLE DONT LE PRINCE EST UN ENFANT” (97), which carried the absurd American title “The Fire that Burns”, and the even more ludicrous strap-line “Some kids should be left the hell alone”. Another boys’ internate and another master with clearly pederastic yearnings for one of his pupils, except that in this instance his desires run athwart a special friendship of the first category, a love between two of the boys. He attempts to rid himself of his rival by unfairly expelling the elder boy (pederastic teachers are Bad Guys, naturally) and exposes himself to disgrace in the process.
It occurs again in the boyhood flashback of Pedro Almodovar’s “LA MALA EDUCACIÓN” (04). Two ten-year old internate boys of the early sixties have the hots for one another — they’re seen in furtive mutual masturbation watching nuns on the cinema screen (alarmingly) — but the wicked Father Manolo expels the one in order to have the other, Ignacio, all to himself. The rest of the film concerns the adult Ignacio’s attempts to blackmail Father Manolo, now married and working for a publisher. The serene altar boy of yore is now a rancid altered boy: a haggard homosexual junkie parasite with artificial breasts and a victim complex.
Almodovar lazily invites his audience to take it as read, just as Ignacio does, that Father Manolo is somehow to blame for all the wreckage of his adult life. But the self-loathing that was so endemic among homosexuals of his generation, amply revealed in this film, cannot so easily be laid at the door of selfish or manipulative priests. It was society’s virulent hatred of homosexuals that made so many men (the ones who did not kill themselves sooner) into miserable tortured adults. The “blame culture” prevalent today is fond of dividing the world into “Victims” and “Perpetrators”, the “Innocent” and the “Guilty”, and it has found a new outlet for that same virulent homophobia. “Faggot-bating” has given way to “child molester bating”, but all the old prejudices remain intact. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The evidence is abundant on screen that Ignacio is simply in search of a scapegoat for inadequacies all his own, but the film dovetails too conveniently with the finger-pointing brigade who were now training their fire on the (conveniently wealthy) Catholic church.
In “IL SAPORO DEL GRANO” (“The Flavour of Corn”, Italy 86) a young teacher takes up a post at a rural school and, again, becomes sufficiently charmed with one of his boy pupils (Marco Mestriner, 12) that their extra-mural relationship comes within a hair’s breadth of explicit homosexual caresses. Such films hark back to the continental theme of the “pedagogical eros”, echoing classical Greek notions, whereby a teacher and pupil might forge a unique personal bond and love, the better to promote excellence and moral endeavour. Intimacy, even sexual intimacy, was sanctioned provided it served the pursuit of truth or honour, rather than simple gratification. That cult of special teacher-pupil intimacy, the pedagogical eros, enjoyed a brief revival in the Germany of the 1920s, but was extinguished by the rise of fascism.
The closest American film to such titles, where the teacher-pupil bond seems to stray scandalously out of bounds, was of course Mel Gibson’s directorial debut “MAN WITHOUT A FACE” (93). The source novel was quite unambiguous that the friendship which grows between the 12-year old boy Norstad (Nick Stahl) and his private mentor (Gibson) segues into a brief sexual relationship also, but Gibson sidestepped that minefield, allowing his hero to become instead the victim of idle mistrust and suspicion. He is, albeit quietly and in a “civilised” fashion, run out of town. It was an interesting cross-over case — even though something of a cop-out on Gibson’s part — in being at once a study of a mentor relationship misconstrued, and an honest portrait of something more, something special, which flowed equally in both directions. It will be a different day in America when that particular book can be refilmed as it was written.
Continue to the next chapter: A friend in need
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Anonymous 93, 11 April 2022
To be fair, the English title The Fire that Burns is surely taken from the words of the Supérieur to the Abbé de Pradts in the final scene: "Il y a en vous...un feu qui brûle et qui n'éclaire pas".