(Directed by Jan Hřebejk, written by Petr Jarchovský) (2016)
Maria Drazdechova, a middle school teacher in Bratislava, requires each class of new students to tell her what their parents do. Czechoslovakia is under Soviet rule in the early eighties, and Maria has connections. Based on a real schoolteacher in the life of screenwriter Petr Jarchovský (an old school pal of the director), Maria proceeds, without secrecy or scruples, to require her pupils’ parents to do whatever she asks of them – including housework, hairdressing, smuggling and the provision of sexual favours. The children of parents who refuse to comply with her demands are marked down, bullied and excluded from favourite activities – in one instance with tragic results. In other words, she is not Mr Chipping. She is more like a relic from South Australia’s Education Department.
Hřebejk’s communist Czechoslovakia looks as shoddy, dowdy and miserable as the real thing. Walls are made of cardboard, clothes are hideous, beds are rumpled cots. The performances, particularly from Zuzana Maurery as the errant teacher, Ina Gogalova as the head teacher, Peter Bebjak as Maria’s personal sex slave and Martin Havelka as a brutish but principled father, are flawlessly accomplished. The growth of Maria’s group of skilfully-garnered cronies and the desperation of her slaves are nicely realised. Unfortunately however, this is a lightweight story, despite its topical and hefty themes. It does not engage and is predictable in a Twelve Angry Men kind of way. It might have worked better as a subplot in a more nuanced and complex story.[P adds: what’s wrong with ‘Twelve Angry Men‘? But we get the critique of the fumbling, of a potentially grand story, of pedagogue as malefactor, the kind of junior high teacher Stalin might have been…]