The Teacher is a dramedy featuring a teacher on the take in communist-era Bratislava. Well-crafted, but struggles to rise above the drabness of its setting.
Set in communist Bratislava of the early 80s, The Teacher is a dramedy built around a widowed middle-aged teacher-on-the-take, Comrade Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery). Based on a real teacher from screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky’s schooldays, Drazdechova is an expert manipulator, exploiting her power within the classroom and without (she heads the local Communist party branch) to extract favours from her students and their parents such as having her groceries delivered, hair permed and home repairs done – gratis, naturally. In exchange, she ensures top grades for the students of the obliging parents by divulging the content of school tests in advance.
While the goings-on are milked for humour, there is a darker side to Comrade Drazdechova. She doesn’t stop at greased-palm transactions. The kids of parents who refuse to cooperate are penalised with poor grades, and even denied the opportunity to sit tests, which drives one girl to attempt suicide. And Drazdechova shows her vicious side when her attempts to seduce one of the parents fail.
The action intermittently zips forward in time to a parents’ meeting arranged by the headmistress in response to complaints about Drazdechova’s behaviour. The dynamics at play as this meeting progresses to its climax are the high point of the film. The parents are divided into two camps: the aggrieved, who want an end to Drazdechova’s carry-on, and those who are benefiting from their “arrangements” with her.
The unlikely leader of the complainants is the straight-talking and sometimes crude Mr. Binder (Martin Havelka), a fiercely working-class man who, ironically, is an outspoken critic of the Communist party. He’s also a caller of bullshit. There’s plenty of that around, as the pro-Drazdechova side, which includes a local judge, rationalises their complicity in her practices of corruption, claiming that they are merely helping a struggling widow. There is a danger that self-interest will prevail over truth and justice, which of course comes with a human cost. Sound familiar? This sense of universality gives the meeting real oomph.
Zuzana Maurery excels as Drazdechova, and she’s fascinating to watch, but her role is so dominant that other characters are overshadowed, despite the best efforts of the very able supporting cast. We don’t get to know any of them enough to care about them, and this undermines the emotional power of the film. Only Mr Binder manages to stand out in his own right, and his brutal treatment of his son limits his viewer appeal. Further, there’s a drabness about the setting – no doubt an authentic reflection of Communist-era Bratislava – that some bright and likeable personalities among the minor characters might have ameliorated.
Indeed, perhaps the authenticity of the tale, with its real life roots, hobbles its dramatic possibilities a little.
Movie website: http://www.levelk.dk/films/the-teacher/2593 (original title Učitelka)
The Teacher screening dates (2016-17 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
ECU Joondalup Pines: Tue 29 Nov–Sun 4 Dec 2016, 8pm
UWA Somerville: Mon 5–Sun 11 Dec 2016, 8pm
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