The Slovak-language movie is dark but has great fun with its main character — a new teacher, who, using the children’s grades as leverage, blackmails the parents into favors.
“The Teacher” is a foray into Slovak-language filmmaking by the industrious Czech director Jan Hrebejk. For the occasion, he and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky have chosen a premise that sets up a dark satire about governance and human nature.
Set in Bratislava in 1983, when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, the movie centers on a new teacher, Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery), who, upon meeting her students, asks for their parents’ lines of work.
Using the children’s grades as leverage, Maria plans to blackmail the parents into favors. These range from the menial (fixing her washing machine) to the potentially ruinous (smuggling a cake to Moscow by plane, which could cost a father who works at the airport his job). Maurery has great fun with the character, a tricky part because Maria nearly always maintains a kindhearted veneer, even at her most venal. It’s clear she has no regard for her students’ well-being or education.
‘The Teacher,’ with Zuzana Maurery, Ina Gogalova. Directed by Jan Hrebejk, from a screenplay by Petr Jarchovsky. 103 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Slovak, with English subtitles. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.
Most of what we see of Maria comes in flashbacks during a parents’ conference the school’s head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened, risking her own job because Maria is the chair of the Communist Party at the school.
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Contrary to the idea that strength comes in numbers, “The Teacher” illustrates that some of the parents, while individually upset, are afraid to speak up as a group.
Like Hrebejk’s “Divided We Fall” — a story of a sheepish Czech gentile who locates a vein of courage and generosity during the Nazi occupation — “The Teacher” is polished, engaging and somewhat risk-averse. True, there’s nothing lighthearted about the plot. But “The Teacher” doesn’t dare take its premise to darker places by having Maria prod the parents too far beyond the bounds of their own moral compasses — a logical conclusion of this story.