The Country Teacher
'Country Teacher' celebrates rhythms of rural life
Peter (Pavel Liska) used to teach in Prague. Intelligent and dedicated, he arrives in a small Czech farm town to become the science teacher in the local school. His desire to be at his new school baffles its beefy principal (Cyril Drozda). "Remember, he has taught truly intelligent children," the principal warns Peter's pupils. "Six months," he announces to Peter, "you'll last no longer."
The story could go in numerous directions. Comedy of manners. Hymn to country innocence. Mockery of country doltishness. Instead, writer-director Bohdan Slama offers up a tightly conceived character study of a man in despair. To say why Peter's in despair would ruin the best scene in the movie, back in Prague, at his parents' apartment - and it would really ruin the movie's one hilarious line, the hilarity hinging on the line's being both absolutely simple and (once said) absolutely obvious.
Comedy, though, doesn't interest Slama. He feels for his characters too much to laugh at them, even when they invite it. What does interest him is thematic neatness: material/spiritual, city/country, gay/straight, young/old, farm field/classroom. That neatness reveals itself only gradually, though, and it feels enlarging and vital rather than reductive and dry.
Slama's grave yet restless camera sees to that. He likes unemphatically fluid shots. Cutting would disrupt the rural, almost tidal flow of the film. Only at the end, with a preposterous (and unnecessary) coincidence, as well as an overly tidy emotional resolution, does he lose his sureness of touch.
Rural life, per se, doesn't matter to Slama; its rhythms do. You can see their effects on Marie (Zuzana Bydzovska), who runs a small dairy farm with her son (Ladislav Sedivy). She has a face you'd never see in a Hollywood movie: It displays elements of great beauty, but they're barely discernible under the ravages left by years of hard work. When she makes plain her attraction to Peter, it's easy to understand why he's both attracted and put off. (His being put off is more complicated than you might first think.)
There's nothing flashy about Slama's use of the camera, in part because he never moves it just for motion's sake. He has a keen eye for detail - a puff of smoke from a tractor, the unnatural gleam of a Prague visitor's red Ferrari - and those details flesh out the schematic nature of the plot. So does Liska's performance as Paul. Liska, who looks like a Central European version of the young Harvey Keitel, has a kind of pitch-perfect opacity. Even after we find out the source of his pain, he still carries a weight of mystery.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.