Film Review

Human. Nature.

The lessons of The Country Teacher

By Steve Wiecking July 28, 2009

Bydžovská and Liška shine in Bohdan Sláma’s film. (photo courtesy Film Movement/Landmark Theatres)

I know we’re all supposed to be watching enjoyably dumb blockbusters in this heat but you’ll cheat yourself out of one of the year’s more memorable experiences if you miss The Country Teacher before it leaves the Varsity after Thursday. Yeah, it’s Czech, it takes its time, and its lead character improperly touches a teenage boy. It’s also about complicated human beings. Go to Transformers if you want uncomplicated robots.

Peter (Pavel Liška) is a gifted schoolteacher from Prague who accepts a job in a rural community, presumably because he thinks he can escape his homosexuality, which he hasn’t learned to fully accept. When he informs his mother that he’s gay she sighs but regrets that he has no lover. “You shouldn’t be alone,” she says. “Loneliness is terrible.”

He should’ve listened to her.

Instead, Peter leaves for the country to teach natural sciences. You know the movie’s got a lesson in store when he tells his students, “If we don’t understand nature we can’t understand ourselves.” What’s lovely about the film is that, despite some obviousness with the classroom metaphor, the warts-and-all patience with which writer/director Bohdan Sláma observes each character—and the chirping, sun-dappled but sometimes daunting countryside into which we’re gracefully settled also plays a role—lets us learn without condescendingly schooling us.

Everyone in the film suffers from his or her own version of loneliness, and how each deals with it exposes their individual natures, for better and for worse. Hangdog Peter (Liška looks about to crumble in on himself) befriends widow Marie (Zuzana Bydžovská) and hopes that the monk-ish pleasures of lounging in the hay will repress any urges to roll in the hay. He rebuffs Marie’s advances without telling her why. He does agree to tutor her troubled teenaged son Lada (Ladislav Šedivý). Lada, who feels unworthy of his beloved city girlfriend and can’t connect with his grieving mother, blooms for a bit under Peter’s attentions. But Peter pushes his personal privileges too far one night after the drunk, drowsy boy crashes at his place. (SPOILER ALERT: He reaches inside the sleeping Lada’s underwear to masturbate him. It’s shot in a frank but non-exploitative manner that captures both Peter’s desires and cringing hang-ups.)

The movie could have fallen apart at this point. A mentor messing with a youth? Unsavory business. Yet the filmmaker comprehends that what Peter does is wrong but not inhuman in nature. When Lada literally wakes up as witness to Peter’s advances, all hell breaks loose—not quite in the way we expect. We know Peter and Marie and Lada and where and how they’ve lived too well to expect Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week answers.

The film is impeccably acted. It’s all sideways glances, pained sulks, and hopeful human smiles wary of giving away too much. The remarkable Bydžovská, on the brink of tears or some primal scream, puts across the hard/soft, open/closed-off beauty of painter Andrew Wyeth’s muse Helga. Meanwhile, the director doesn’t rush or overreach. He knows where his film is happening and why. Although some might reasonably gripe that his view of forgiveness errs on the side of utopia, Sláma’s hushed reverence for the urgent responsibility we have to reveal ourselves to one another—to share our longings and grief and, yes, happiness without shame—feels, well, natural. What other film in recent memory finds its greatest sorrow and joy in the birth of a calf?

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