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The Country Teacher
Time Out New York Project: Issue #704, March 26-April 1, 2009
Dir. Bohdan Sláma. 2008. N/R. 113mins. Pavel Liska, Zuzana Bydzovská, Ladislav Sedivý.
If great movies resulted purely from wizardly technical displays, then Czech writer-director Bohdan Sláma’s The Country Teacher would be a masterpiece to give Béla Tarr pause. Save for an occasional insert, Sláma and cinematographer Divis Marek shoot each of the film’s sequences in elaborately choreographed single takes. It’s an attention-grabbing technique that initially enhances the air of mystery surrounding the title character (Liska), who rejects a tony appointment in Prague to teach science at a rural elementary school.
For a good while, Sláma withholds any concrete information about the teacher’s past, and this is when the film is strongest. The Country Teacher is practically elemental in its juxtaposition of a transcendent natural world with the protagonist’s level-headed pedagogy. After the teacher mused at length about the minute details of a snail shell, I was more than prepared for a two-hour Platonic dialogue in motion. But the strikingly introspective mood dissipates when Sláma offers a reason for his character’s visible anxiety—he’s a repressed homosexual on the metaphorical run. Contrived melodrama and facile symbolism take over from there, though Sláma’s visual invention remains all the way up to the bizarre away-in-a-manger finale where the birth of a cow acts as an unlikely conduit to healing and forgiveness.—Keith Uhlich