The Teacher

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a film that shows what’s possible on screen with a good idea that is well thought through and delivered in a confined space.

Clarity of purpose can make for some engrossing drama. Even the necessary period detail here that makes a drab contribution to production design, doesn’t get in the way. In fact, the clashing varieties of 1960s wallpaper are rather funny.

As it happens, The Teacher is based on the lived experience of the filmmakers, director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky, who grew up together behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe.

It is set in a school in Bratislava, now within Slovakia, when the Communist system was ticking away and the fall of the wall in Berlin was still seven years off. A new teacher has arrived and she is making herself acquainted with her class.

Maria Drazdechova is plump, bespectacled and looks friendly enough. As played by Zuzana Maurery who won an award at Karlovy Vary for the role, she is bright and brisk. Compared to the other two teachers we see, she is vivacious with a tendency to make the most of her allure. The head teacher and her assistant look far the more likely contenders for the role she occupies as chair of the Communist Party at the school.

In my experience, teachers in films tend to be inspirational figures, the Robin Williamses and Denzel Washingtons of this world, especially if they understand how their charges tick. But it’s not always the case, and this film has to belong in that dubious category.

To kick off the introductions, Drazdechova flips her notebook open to take down details about each student. First salient fact is what their parents do for a living. Always on the lookout for an opportune angle, she takes notes as she goes around the class.

This scene is cut into a later event, a meeting that the head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened for parents to see if there is enough support to mount a petition and oust the controversial new recruit. Cutting backwards and forwards, we weave around the room, filling in the backstories behind the students’ families with deft camerawork and editing.

It would be funny – and it is, mildly – if it weren’t also serious.

Drazdechova exchanges a free session at the hairdresser for some advice in passing on where the hairdresser’s child can improve in tests. Another parent can fix her washing machine, and another could smuggle a cake into Moscow for her.

Worse still, she gets her students to do chores for her after school, robbing them of the time they need for their extra-curricular activities and their homework. When it is revealed that student attainment in her class is poor, no one can be surprised.

The airport accountant (Csongor Kassai) declines the mission to smuggle cake only to find himself ensnared in an even more compromising position. Though not as tricky as the place that diffident, former astrophysicist (Peter Bebjak) finds himself in when he becomes a twinkle in Drazdechova’s eye.

When the promising young gymnast tries to take her life, the message about the pernicious influence of the teacher on her students’ well-being is brought home.

Further to that, the difficulties the parents have in speaking up, in making a complaint and thereby extricating themselves when they have bought into such a system, is clearly demonstrated.

Czech director Hrebejk shows a remarkably deft hand and he has a superior cast to work with, including young Richard Labuda as  the principled and conflicted son of a man who beats him.

Screenwriter Jarchovsky and director Hrebjek also created the excellent, Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall, set in Nazi-era Czechoslovakia. Here they set out to demonstrate how the ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ mentality, the antithesis of a meritocracy, is ruinous for student educational attainment, not to mention how it distorts social relations.

It’s really the system that Hrebejk and Jarchovsky take aim at, rather than its said representative, the unsinkable Ms Drazdechova.

3.5 Stars

Rated M, subtitled, 1 hr 43 mins

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7