The is the first film date for a new meetup group for New York film lovers. We saw it at the Film Forum on opening day, and it was a good choice.
A Czech film in the Slovak language, directed by Jan Hrebejk, who co-wrote it with frequent collaborator Petr Jarchovsky, it was I think accurately labeled a “dark satire” in the NYTimes review. Set in 1983 in Bratislava, it sharply exposes the level of corruption under Communist rule by micro-focusing on a middle school where a teacher repeatedly exploits her students, and their parents, in order to get personal favors from them. As in the Roumanian film, Graduation, reviewed earlier this year, it seems that a theme in films from former Communist countries is the often hidden, low-level corruption of local officials, and the degree of tolerance for it, often with active participation, by the average citizen.
The teacher of the title, Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery), opens the film by introducing herself to her new class. She asks that the children stand, give their names and, strangely, state what their parents do for a living. The reason for this odd request is soon apparent: she’ll ask “favors” from the parents based on their jobs and, quite coincidentally, give their child poor grades if they refuse.
The scheme works, at least at first. She gets them to bake cakes, clean her apartment and drive her to her summer house. A childless widow of about fifty, she explains that a working woman living alone can’t take care of all household needs and repairs, and she works very hard at giving their children a good education. Also the school administration is terrified of her because she is a party leader – with a sister in Moscow, no less.
The story focuses on three aggrieved students and their families: one girl, Danka (Tamara Fischer), who loves gymnastics, has a father who is an accountant at an airport; a boy whose father, a mechanic, will beat him for poor grades, and a shy boy whose father is a professor. The professor is especially vulnerable because his wife, a research scientist, abandoned the family and defected to the west. But this targeted him as a western sympathizer to the secret police.
The film cross-cuts, sometimes confusingly, between the teacher’s scenes with the individual parents and a PTA conference, later on, where the parents debate getting rid of her. The conference was called by the school’s head teacher in response to a petition by one parent, the airport accountant, who hoped it would be co-signed by the other parents. Drazdechova doesn’t attend because, it was felt, her presence would only be inflammatory.
The odds against the petition were overwhelming at first. Joined by most of the parents, who fearfully covered up or minimized the teacher’s abuse of power, the administrators relentlessly attacked the accountant as a troublemaker. They said that doing favors for a teacher is normal, and that he only spoke up when his child got poor grades, which she probably deserved.
But slowly, in scenes reminiscent of Twelve Angry Men, the other parents are emboldened to add their signatures. Drazdechova is removed and, if only for a short time, rendered powerless.
Drazdechova is a truly frightening creature, and her comeuppance makes for a satisfyingly uplifting tale. The film maintains interest, with solid performances all around, especially by Zuzana Maurery (Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival) as the deliciously evil teacher. But it never really catches fire. Two things seemed to hold it back, at least for me.
First off, while satire is not the same as farce, we still expect it to be funny. Government corruption is a perfect subject for film humor, going back to Capra and Wilder. And Czech directors are famous for it, even when under soviet domination. Do you remember Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball? While the tone and pace set by Hrebejk are not exactly grim, he seemed to favor credible character development over humor. The PTA meeting, in particular, gave the impression that parents who eventually signed the petition were doing some heroic act. While I heard a few snorts of laughter during the screening, these few bright moments seemed to come when Maurery, working against the rather deliberate tone, decided to have some fun with her sly, conniving character.
But I think something else was at work here. The actors representing the establishment – namely Drazdechova, the head teacher and other apparatchiks – were often made to look ridiculous, which couldn’t have been too hard. Think of other political leaders who keep lying to your face (think hard). It’s easy to laugh at them, and there is pleasure in that. But I couldn’t help noticing that the parents were not stylized in the same way. Their anger, confusion and, eventually, their rebellion, are treated in a generally serious and realistic manner. In one scene, for instance, the mechanic – a forceful actor named Martin Havelka, who reminded me of the late Simon Oakland – cruelly beats his son, who nevertheless defies him. It is a gripping scene, and convincingly sets up the father’s remorse, and his later decision to sign the petition. But, from a different perspective, the man is acting like an idiot who is blaming his son for his own cowardice. He could just as easily have been shown as foolish and, yes, even funny.
My point is that if the parents were presented in the same light as the administrators, the satire would would not seem so tame. After all, many of the parents admitted that what the teacher did was not unfamiliar to them, only that she went “too far”. Exactly. An underlying theme – one that Graduation did not shy away from – is how corruption is actually enabled by passive acceptance by its victims. For whatever reason, Hrebejk gave the parents a noble patina. But I think it kept a pretty good film from becoming a great one.