* * * (out of five)
It’s always a delight to watch a superb lead performance from a mid-career actor you’ve never seen before. Czech-born actor Zuzana Mauréry is new to me, although she has a solid list of film and TV credits, and she delivers a doozy of a turn as The Teacher, utterly convincing, nuanced, funny and slightly terrifying.
We’re in the suburbs of Bratislava in 1983, when it was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, Mauréry’s Maria is the relatively new teacher in town, and she’s utterly corrupt, first identifying her students’ parents’ vocations and then demanding free services in exchange for good grades and an easier school passage. It’s outrageous and something must be done, but will there be enough collective will to do it?
The astonishing period production design is both a help and hinderance to the film; it takes you there, but it’s not a happy place to be. The drabness of the school and the various apartments of the characters are oppressive dramatically and visually; what is authentic is also a little numbing. About a third of the action takes place in one of the school’s classrooms in the evening and these scenes drag repetitively; indeed, the whole film, which is only an hour and forty-two minutes, makes its point over and again, and could have been tighter.
That said, the milieu is intriguing, the metaphors at play are clear and enlightening, and Mauréry’s performance is absolutely worth catching. Like the film itself, her Maria has a sheen of humour; just one prick, though, and you’ll find nothing to laugh at underneath.