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Life is made up of little lessons that, when strung together, form a whole that allows us to see the larger truth. The same can be said for The Country Teacher. It’s a series of little scenes, each one containing a gem of truth, that ultimately fit together to form a beautiful story. Like life, it’s raw, it’s messy, and it’s uncomfortable.
Petr (Pavel Liska) has left Prague behind to teach at a small country school, working for a principal who doubts that he will make it outside the big city. But rather than miss the life he left behind, Petr quickly falls into the rural routine, sleeping in piles of hay and befriending the simple, hard-working locals. Whether Petr is running away from something or towards something is not immediately known. What is clear is his incredible loneliness.
Petr soon befriends Marie (Zuzana BydzovskÃ¡), a neighbor who, despite her often-troubled son, the never-ending work on her farm, and the lack of available water, is still capable of smiling broadly and appreciating the simple things — like the smell of last year’s hay. Petr and Marie’s friendship is beautiful and painful to watch, because she is falling in love and he is gay.
When Petr’s former boyfriend (Marek Daniel) unexpectedly shows up unannounced, he brings with him the past that Petr left behind. Petr’s ex is loud and crass; it’s hard to picture the quiet, introspective Petr with him. However, the former paramour recognizes what others cannot — that Petr is in love with Marie’s 17-year-old son (Ladislav SedivÃ½).
The strength and power of The Country Teacher comes from the undeniable natural forces that propel the characters forward. Overflowing with unrequited love, the film tracks the desire-fueled mistakes that draw closer with each passing moment. There is love and trust developing among mother, son and teacher, but lust is always the primal drive lurking in the background.
Writer and director Bohdan SlÃ¡ma balances his story with the setting to great success. The slow-paced country life is the ideal backdrop to the human struggles that fill the landscape. SlÃ¡ma is wonderfully adept at gradually developing each character, allowing them to form relationships before your eyes and then testing them to see when they will break. None of his characters are immune to mistakes, and the act of forgiveness is the ultimate lesson that SlÃ¡ma is exploring.
Liska, as the teacher, walks the finest of tightropes in the film. He has to first gain sympathy as the newcomer hiding his sexuality from everyone, and then fight his increasing attraction to the young Lada. Liska does a fine job with the difficult role, going from charming teacher to someone controlled by his emotions. If Liska falters, it’s in his responses to the actions of Petr’s ex-boyfriend, but this is a small blip in an otherwise strong performance.
By the end, it may be that the story actually belongs to Marie. BydzovskÃ¡ is a powerhouse, giving a performance that is heartbreakingly beautiful. BydzovskÃ¡’s smile alone can transform Marie from a cow herder into a lonely woman dismissed for her age but who still longs for companionship and love. Torn between her son and a man she loves, Marie is both complex and simple and BydzovskÃ¡ strikes the perfect balance between the two.
Director SlÃ¡ma has perfected the single-shot scene, allowing for the audience to slowly be drawn into intimate, natural dialogue between the characters or to heighten the mounting tension. It’s a technique that allows for the actors to remain at the heart of the story and increases the emotional investment made in each of them.
The lessons that Petr teaches in his science class are the larger messages of the film. Whether he is interpreting the life of a snail based on the empty shell or expounding on the beauty of diversity in nature, it’s clearly these points that are supposed to be remembered. Fortunately, SlÃ¡ma’s direction ensures that these moments aren’t preachy or overly didactic, but rather insights into Petr and the struggles he has between his head and his heart. It’s a struggle that’s painful to watch, but ultimately a lesson in forgiveness worth studying.