A Country Teacher Directed by Bohdan Slama
Review by LRH June 7, 2009
After rebuffing Zuzana, an older widowed farm-woman who has befriended him, brings him bottles of fresh milk and snuggles up to him on a haystack, we find out from an unwelcome visit by a bad-news friend to the village in which he has taken refuge that Petr (Peter) is gay. Until then we are puzzled: has Petr run from his teaching position to the quiet, rural, back ward village because of a failed love affair, a disagreement with his powerful and opinionate mother who teaches with him at a prestigious Prague gymnasium or because of a general sense of failure and mediocrity? The story however is not about his homosexuality as such but about his incapability of connecting and communicating purposefully with those around him, whether in Prague or the village. He is gentle, sensitive, meditative and of a religious yearning that he cannot place or truly believe in. He is never parted from a slim volume of perhaps philosophy or natural history as if it’s a bible. He is, to the surprise of the tough headmaster of his country school, a good teacher, relating nature around him to the human condition. For instance, a snail shell is not the snail – it is an empty shell, yet from it you can tell its history, a paradox the village teens seem to appreciate but which is actually a moral message to his attentive students about himself and other misfits. Bees cooperate but the worker bees are a-sexual and only programmed to serve their queen; during the film we see his father tending his hive on his city balcony and in fact when he finally tells his mother he is gay -- - and she has recovered enough to warn him not to tell his taciturn father – he tells her his father already knows. Bees know their place in their society; surely men should too. This confession was the second – the first was of an exaggerated, flagellatory kind when he tells the exhausted Zuzana that he ‘raped’ her son Lada. The enormity of his sin in his mind and potentially that of the villagers is perhaps why he couches his act as a rape – which was a rapturous love scene when he gazes at Lada and cannot resist caressing his penis as he sleeps. In fact none of this is portrayed as carnal; he himself does not believe in sex without love and he truly loves the son whom he has tried to encourage in promoting self-esteem.
He is welcomed by the rough and usually drunk villagers, flirted with by the ladies; he finds himself a companion to old and young and an increasingly indispensable companion to Zuzana who forgives him his crime; she is as lonely as he, practical and wise. In an effort to redeem himself, he imitates his beloved grandfather and finding the weak vein in the bedrock, brings sweet water into the drying well. When her son returns from an angry, rebellious and ineffective search for his ex-girlfriend, who has abandoned him for a life of hedonism, exuberance and further education at the gymnasium, Zuzana begs him to forgive Petr and together they act as three midwives to a cow lowing painfully as the fragile new life emerges urging maternal care and the milk of human kindness. Petr does not need to sacrifice himself to find redemption: united by a common cause, putting aside hatreds, he becomes one of a family, and we see how country matters can educate us and bring peace to an imperfect mankind.
THE COUNTRY TEACHER
Written and directed by Bohdan Slama; director of photography, Divis Marek; edited by Jan Danhel; music by Vladimir Godar; production designers, Vaclav Novak and Petr Pistik; produced by Pavel Strnad, Petr Oukropec, Karl Baumgartner and Thanassis Karathanos; released by Film Movement. In Czech, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Pavel Liska (Teacher), Zuzana Bydzovska (Marie), Ladislav Sedivy (Boy), Marek Daniel (Boyfriend), Tereza Voriskova (Popsie) and Milos Cernousek (School Principal).