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Petr, youthful, quiet, and sensitive, comes from Prague to teach natural science in a country town. The gruff principal asks what he's running from and predicts he'll be gone in six months. Marie, a widow with a teen son, Lada, befriends Petr. She's lonely. Petr does some chores at her farm and watches Lada with his weekend girlfriend, Bara. We meet Petr's parents and understand some of why he left Prague, then Petr's friend Mihi pays a visit and we understand more. Mihi throws a wrench in things, and Lada comes to Petr for help. Has Petr found his place in the world, but what about his nature? Written by
Calves and lanky boys and making do in the country
This somewhat ironically titled Czech film, dubbed Best Queer Film at the 2008 Reykjavík Film Festival, depicts the experiences of a confused gay schoolteacher who moves from Prague to the country and falls in love with a straight teenager. He's not a country teacher. He is someone who has left the faculty of an elite school in the capital because it's too much dominated by his talented mother (Zuzana Bydovská) and because he's broken up with his boyfriend, whom he never really loved. Presumably he's also on the run from his gayness, since he hides it now. The principal of the country school (Cyril Drozda) knows he's messed up somehow to end up here, and predicts he'll last no more than six months.
That's before the pensive Petr (Pavel Liska), who looks perpetually befuddled or depressed, runs into Marie (Zuzana Bydzovská), a weather-beaten widow with red hair and good bone structure, and her son Lada (Ladislav Sedivý), a beautiful, lanky youth who looks like a male model but thinks himself a loser. Together Marie and Lada run a dairy farm. Petr's new milieu is rugged, and the women are blunt and the men are blunter. There's much drunkenness on view, with smoking of joints, quaffing of beers and downing of shots, but no sign of fun, except when Lada's making out in the hay with his girlfriends, who don't stick with him long.
Despite emotional paralysis, Petr's physically quite presentable, and Marie signals interest at once, but he brushes her off. The reaction is similar but much stronger when, after much delay and and against his better judgment, he makes a pass at Lada. His former boyfriend (Marek Daniel) shows up in a fast red car, a yuppie headhunter who now lives in Germany. He again is rejected, and surprisingly runs off with Lada's girl.
Things go back and forth after that. Somehow when the film had barely begun I was reminded of Penelope Gilliatt's bittersweet screenplay for John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday. The plots are utterly different, but there is the same focus on sexual ambivalence and compromise. The way The Country Teacher is resolved is all about making do.
Petr teachers his class about nature, and there are some none-too-subtle messages in what he has to say to his students at the film's beginning and end about, of all things, snails. Two calves' birthings also, one stillborn, one successful, have a similarly pointed message to convey. Why are Marie, Petr, and Lada all still together at the end after all that has happened? Surely not just to help a cow give birth. No, it's just that "everybody needs somebody," as Marie intones.
A sequence when Petr briefly revisits his parents in Prague and comes out to his high-powered mother, by way of explaining why he is not sorry a former girlfriend has married, seems from another more sophisticated movie, especially in the subtle way Petr and his bee-keeper father (Miroslav Krobot) interact.
Petr and Lada have both run off, and both come back. Petr surprises the country school principal by deciding to stay on after all, and when they express delight he pointedly tells them, "What if you were to know that I am homosexual?" Ah, well, that's an accepted thing now, the principal says, after a pause, and the woman teacher who's been hitting on Petr gulps and agrees. Perhaps Petr is growing out of being a self-hating homosexual. Still, Sláma has not indicated that he has prospects for a gay life in this rural setting (he may, but there's no hint of it).
Despite its frustrating half-a-loaf ending, The Country Teacher inspires sympathy for its main characters and makes them come to (limited) life. Too bad that Petr is such a doofus and that the film has only one strong, risky moment. Minor characters seem somewhat one-dimensional. This lacks the chaotic richness of Slama's 2005 'Something Like Happiness,' but in return it's a lot more clearly focused. At times the use of modern classical music is obtrusive, especially when Petr is tutoring the teenage Lada, who after all likes only loud rock and video games. Perhaps the art music is meant to tell us Petr is out of tune with the boy, but he's out of tune with us at that point too. We've had enough.
In limited US theatrical release (March following 2009), 'The Country Teacher'/'Venkovský ucitel' will be issued on US DVD September 9, 2009.
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