Sunday, March 27, 2011

Country Teacher, The (2008, Venkovský ucitel)

The biggest problem with The Country Teacher is that it lives in the world of movies.  Not very intelligent movies.  It takes a very serious subject, sexual confusion and the sly abuse of power, and doesn’t follow through, preferring instead to tie up all loose ends and tack on a happy ending.  It’s hard to judge a movie like this as a movie because the situations and dialogue belonging to its characters is quite simply unbelievable.

A prep school Teacher from Prague comes to an idyllic community to find work.  His new employer is weary and gives him 6 months teaching natural science to middle schoolers.  The Teacher befriends a widowed Mother and her teenage son but what nobody knows is that the Teacher is gay.  He has chosen this community to hide out his sexuality, and all it takes for everything to change is a visit from his ex-boyfriend.  This man runs off with the son’s girlfriend, and the Teacher takes this opportunity to befriend the lonely, troubled teen.  In the process he falls in love.  At the same time the Mother falls in love with the Teacher, and one night after a party the Teacher molests the boy.

The first thing to note is that the Mother is very forgiving of the man who touched her son.  I’ll buy that.  They were friends and she is attracted to him, depressed because for some unknown reason he won’t reciprocate her advances.  It’s also an unexpected story twist.  We’d expect the Mother to fight for her son, but she takes the tact of, maybe not trying to understand, but of living with the situation and forgiving it.  But the film does not allow her to consider her son’s rape.  She’s angry when she’s told and cries alone, but in her very next scene she tries to save the life of the Teacher who has attempted suicide.  Henceforth she is nurturing towards this man.  Doesn’t she realize that this man touched her son’s penis while he slept peacefully at his home?  I find this hard to swallow, but if the film had shown her struggle or even painted a portrait of her as a careless mother then it would make more sense.  She’d simply prefer the friendship of any man to that of her son, but not only do we see that she loves her son, she is a stable person… except for the scene where she is an alcoholic.  But she bounces out of that quickly.

The finale is equally insipid.  When the son returns home with a broken leg, having left because his Mother was still so caring of the Teacher, she begs her son to forgive his attacker, and in the highly symbolic ending of bringing new life into the world the three come together as an odd kind of family.  I’m thinking as I’m watching, ‘Isn’t anyone going to ever remember the incident?  If ever the Teacher pats the son’s shoulder, isn’t the kid going to remember the feel of the Teacher’s hand over his penis?’  Doesn’t anyone realize how creepy this is?  It’s a ridiculous situation and one that really is made light of with a carefree ending.

One thing the film does in its favor is treat the Teacher as a human being.  At first we don’t know he’s gay.  He’s a loner, uncomfortable among his new-found friends during a night of drinking.  His ex comes because he misses him, and it is here we learn the truth.  What at first seems like someone afraid of what his sexuality will do to his quaint happiness in this isolated, traditional community becomes something more sinister.  The Teacher, we learn, is trying to denounce sexual practice by ignoring desire.  To most rational people this seems foolish, but the film is about a confused, helpless man, and The Country Teacher never takes a negative stance against him.  Even after he assaults the boy, the film plays fair, asking us indirectly to consider the secrecy and uncertainty that has led this man to do something immoral.  As he teaches and befriends the boy, he sees an opportunity for happiness.  Not a lasting happiness, but he sees someone who he loves who needs a man in his life to love him back.  The problem is the Teacher can’t distinguish between love, the relationship between two friends, and love, the attraction between two likeminded people.  The actions the Mother character takes makes this stuff ridiculous.  If the material were less idealistic this could have been a terrific film.  Most filmmakers wouldn’t dare tackle this subject matter.  But to let the Teacher off the hook and have everyone so open-minded and unselfish is simply not plausible.

I should give the film more credit.  It’s actually well made, but the problem the movie has in the psychology of its character is just too big to ignore.  Visually this is quite beautiful.  Director Bohdan Sláma doesn’t know how to make an uninteresting shot.  In the first 20 minutes where nothing overly exciting happens the director’s camera keeps things lively.  He knows when to hold shots and when and how to move through his characters’ spaces.  The lead performance by Pavel Liska as the Teacher is very restrained.  He longs for everything at a distance, never being direct or sometimes even suppressing his wants and needs, even in matters practical and social.  The other performers are just fine, including Tereza Vorísková as the son’s girlfriend.  Though only a brief supporting role she is stunningly beautiful and a terrific young actress.  Hopefully she can become an international star because I want to see more of her.  What we have with The Country Teacher is a well made, mediocre film with some real talent on display.

Another fault in storytelling: when the Mother forgives him and he decides to return to teaching, the Teacher returns to his colleagues and needs to ask, “Is it a problem that I am homosexual?” leading to momentary awkward glances among the other teachers.  That is until they realize homosexuality is the norm and welcome him.  It’s kind of embarrassing to see a scene like this.  Only in the movies would situations like these work themselves out without any help from living beings.  Again it just undermines the seriousness of manipulation and adolescent abuse.  The scary part is that there are probably thousands of situations like this the world over so the film does a great disservice to its audience.

But forget about that.  Defiant against his old ways, the Teacher is now determined to make his life right.  He will no longer run, and as long as he is open and accepting of himself the world will be too.  Good luck.

Country Teacher, The (2008)
(a.k.a. Venkovský ucitel)
Director: Bohdan Sláma
Writer: Bohdan Sláma
Stars: Pavel Liska, Zuzana Bydzovska and Ladislav Sedivy
Czech Republic
In Czech
Runtime: 115 minutes

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  2. Happy to know I have a steady reader. Thanks for the comments!