Friday 16 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (22) - THE TEACHER (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic). Reviewed by Barrie Pattison

With Ucitelka/The Teacher  Festival Favourite Jan Hrebejk and his regular writer Petr Jarchovský are back on familiar ground documenting the abuses of Communist control in 1980s Czechoslovakia which we also saw in their Kawasaki’s Rose

It starts confusingly with widow teacher and party secretary Maria Drazdechova 
(Zuzana Maurery) calling the new roll in her 1983 Bratislava suburban school class room, cross cut with what turns out to be a parents meeting called to discuss an allegation of her misconduct.    

We hear she’s into manipulating the families of the children in her class to provide  services she wants - smuggling food to Russia, house keeping, running errands or fixing her appliances. Some of the parents are hearty supporters of her methods which include providing test answers to their children to boost their grades.

This comes to a halt when young ribbon twirling gymnast Tamara Fischer, who has been told in front of her class mates that she’s the dumbest kid there, puts her head in the gas oven. Her dad Martin Havelka places a complaint and when the school calls a meeting to determine action, he’s told that he’s an unreliable participant because punching out a stroppy foreigner got him a jail spell. Similarly disgraced window cleaner Peter Bebjak (himself a director of similarly themed efforts like Cistic) was a scientist before his wife broke with the restrictions of the socialist community and fled abroad. Mauréry sees him as replacement husband material and gets him the spot as school janitor, which comes with a flat. She encourages his artistic son who innocently gets involved in a foreign exchange voucher scam. 

The meeting becomes tense and attention goes to Bebjak when he stands up - but he just wants to use the loo. The kind of moment we expect from Hrebejk.

Even an account of her dismal pupil success rate fails to swing the meeting against Mauréry and it looks like the head teacher will have to give her a promotion and a pay rise to defuse the matter.

The final montage of the subsequent lives of the kids is quite touching and following the coda in the class room with the Václav Havel photo on the wall, takes some of the bitterness out of what we have been watching.

Performances are superior but craft aspects are mixed as with the irritating panning in the opening meeting. This one is uneasy viewing with its comedy elements mixed in with the sadistic treatment of children not only by their elders but also by their peers. As predicted, I find the quality of the festival films falling away as the event wears on.

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