When I found out I’d be screening a film with a gay man as the protagonist, I was both apprehensive and curious. I’ve seen too many films where a leading gay character has to die or suffer some miserable fate as a necessary part of the story’s narrative (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, A SINGLE MAN). However, as a gay man myself, I was curious about gay life in eastern Europe, particularly in a non-urban setting. It didn’t hurt that the film was a 2010 GLAAD award nominee for best film.
THE COUNTRY TEACHER, directed by Bohdan Slama, presents a realistic portrayal of a gay man in conflict that is refreshingly free of Hollywood’s more annoying stereotypes. The movie tells the story of Petr (nicely underplayed by Pavel Liska), a closeted prep-school teacher from Prague who comes to a bucolic Czech village to instruct children in the natural sciences. In an early lesson he advises prophetically, “If we don’t understand nature, we can’t understand ourselves.”
Shortly after his arrival, Petr is befriended by Marie (Zuzana Bydzovska), a local cow herder who lives with her teen son Lada (Ladislav Sidivy). While tutoring Lada in math, Petr finds himself attracted to the young man and embarks on a course of action that has traumatic consequences. It made me wonder, if Petr had been an out gay man, would he have had the problems he had? Is it possible to have a healthy romantic relationship if you still have at least one foot in the closet?
This provocative yet sensitive movie doesn’t flinch from showing Petr’s feelings for Lada. We also see that certain cultural touchstones for adulthood are more relaxed in this rural community. There is no adult censure when 17-year-old Lada is seen drinking hard liquor or smoking pot and there is acceptance of his sexually active relationship with a young woman. Does the film show that homosexuality is also acceptable? Well, to a certain extent, yes, but there is also a good deal of bewilderment, fear and ignorance.
Director Bohdan Slama (LIKE HAPPINESS, THE WILD BEES) bravely declines to portray Petr as criminally disturbed and it was great to see that Petr’s parents seemed more concerned about his loneliness than his sexual orientation. While Petr may have felt the need to be alone when he fled city life, he soon discovers that isolation is not the answer. As he stumbles awkwardly toward making bona fide human connections, he discovers they can be found in unanticipated places.
As for Marie’s reaction to Petr’s encounter with her son, Zuzana Bydzovska’s beautifully layered performance shows us that a cow herder can have a pretty sophisticated understanding of human nature. In fact, Marie’s intuitive abilities regarding both Petr and Lada left me wondering whether she was the real “country teacher” here.
For nature lovers, there are two graphic scenes showing a cow giving birth on Marie’s farm. I leave the symbolism for others to discern. But if you’re in the least bit squeamish, you’ve been warned!