Imagine if the parents from ‘Big Little Lies’ took a touring production of ’12 Angry Men’ to Communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s – that’s the closest I can get to accurately summarising ‘The Teacher’, a scathing satire of the tragically banal manipulations and exploitations that form the disturbingly human reasons for why communism just never quite seems to work out particularly well in the end. Oh, and did I mention it’s also a heck of a lot of fun?
The latest effort from regular collaborators, director/writer team Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky (‘Honeymoon’, ‘Divided We Fall’), the film opens by carefully intercutting the students and parents of a particular primary school class, one that has newly been taken over by the seemingly benign Maria Drazděchová (Zuzana Mauréry). As she meets her new pupils, she invites each of them to stand and announce their parents’ occupations, and as they do we see those very same parents sitting down in the same classroom some months later, only this time for an emergency meeting to discuss Drazděchová’s possibly unethical behaviour.
'THE TEACHER' TRAILER
You see, Drazděchová is not the ordinary, harmless, lonely widow she claims to be – she’s an amoral authoritarian opportunist, using her position as both schoolmarm and Highest-Ranking Communist in the Village to procure favours both big and small from the parents of her students. Whether it’s baked goods, a fixed lampshade, a new hairdo, or even having the kids themselves come over to her apartment as a free cleaning service, Drazděchová takes all she can get, and if she can’t get what she wants from someone, then their child’s grades seem to immediately and not-so-coincidentally begin to suffer. That is, until there are some truly tragic consequences, leading to the emergency meeting and its uncomfortably believable depiction of parental instincts gone awry.
As you can no doubt tell, this is didactic stuff. Hrebejk and Jarchovsky have no qualms about bringing their political subtext as close to the forefront as possible. But, what’s remarkable about the film is the way that it still captures a certain universality through its central knotty tensions, as each of the parents are forced to grapple with how many bad things they’re willing to do for good reasons.
At the centre of all of this is Zuzana Mauréry’s towering, high-wire performance, flitting between comic righteousness as she blusters and manipulates without an ounce of self-effacement, and a thornier, more complex portrait of a lonely woman doing only what she believes she must to survive. It’s impressive stuff, not least of all because the character as written could so easily be more of a concept than an actual person, but Mauréry almost single-handedly carries the film by making her so terrifyingly human. The rest of the cast are fine, without a weak performance in sight, but none lend quite the same virtuosic mixture of charisma, charm and pathos to their, frankly, underwritten roles.
What’s remarkable about the film is the way that it still captures a certain universality through its central knotty tensions, as each of the parents are forced to grapple with how many bad things they’re willing to do for good reasons.
But, that’s less of a huge problem than it may sound, as the well-oiled machinery of Hrebejk and Jarchovsky’s morality play is so entertaining and engrossing that I kind of just got swept along for the ride. Though there are initial stumbles in clarification early on in the film, as the two timelines struggle to introduce a litany of characters and get the ball rolling on the central plot at the same time, these issues are ironed out as the film progresses. And besides, the conceit of that opening is so strong in and of itself, as it thematically establishes Drazděchová’s grip on both students and parents alike right from the get-go, meaning even that is hard to hold against the film.
The story is one that has achieved almost folkloric proportions for Jarchovsky, as the writer pulls from family tales of life during an oppressive time to craft a winningly acerbic script, but still views these characters with a certain level of compassion. And, pleasingly, with its final shot (which, yes, can be seen coming from a mile away), the film doesn’t forget to turn this all back around on us as well.