The Teacher: Learning from a good comrade
by David González
- KARLOVY VARY 2016: Veteran and prolific Czech director Jan Hřebejk brings us a metaphor on the moral poverty of power through a calculating and corrupt teacher
One of the most well-known names in commercial Czech film and one of the most important themes in the history of the Czech Republic. Director Jan Hřebejk, the writer behind films such as Divided We Fall (nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000) or the more recent Honeymoon [+see also:
film profile], which won the award for Best Director at Karlovy Vary in 2013, brings us a well-made film on an execrable issue. The moral decay of the Communist machine and a calculating and corrupt teacher, part of the system of power, are at the heart of the plot of The Teacher [+see also:
interview: Jan Hřebejk
film profile], the film the director presented in competition at the 51st Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
The teacher is the central axis of the entire film, which is based on a true story written by Peter Jarchovský, from start to finish. Maria Drazdechova (played brilliantly by Zuzana Mauréry) is the new teacher in a school on the outskirts of Bratislava, and the first thing she does when she arrives is ask her students their names… along with what their parents do for a living. After carefully choosing students whose parents could prove useful, Maria establishes a network based on favours, corruption and blackmail, which some of them accept, with their children receiving better marks as a result. Nonetheless, when one of the parents, who works at the airport (Csongor Kassai), refuses to go along with it all and his daughter suffers the consequences, with the teacher starting to pick on the dissident and single father as a result (Peter Bebjak), her network is thrown into jeopardy.
Hřebejk sets up two narratives right from the beginning of the film. The opening scene, which shows two different time periods, shows the students that must deal with the teacher’s ploys on a day-to-day basis, ploys that also have repercussions on their families, in the past, and the parents in a meeting with the headmistress, without the teacher, to discuss the events that led to Drazdechova’s immoral attitude, in the present. From then on, the parallel editing forges a bond between the characters (those who are mistreated by the teacher in particular) and the viewer, providing the details necessary to allow us to observe the teacher’s behaviour and the impact this has on her victims. The way the film is staged, lying somewhere between comedy and drama, with a healthy dose of academicism and great support from the performances of the actors, is as obliging as it is clichéd.
Far from evoking discomfort, ambiguity and provocation, which could have helped bring greater depth to the film, The Teacher opts for an almost caricatured portrayal, which is fairly entertaining and well-structured, of the impunity with which the high hierarchical spheres of a political system such as communism operate to manipulate the lowest levels of society to their advantage, without morals or remorse, encouraged by the status quo. And it also shows us its consequences on the present: as if we were still fighting against this reality instead of having overcome it.
(Translated from Spanish)
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