The Narrow Road

in 15th International Film Festival Bratislava

by Alexey Gusev

A confrontation between students and their teacher(s) has been a familiar cinematic theme for at least 80 years now, and was made specifically prominent by such powerful works as Leontine Sagan’s Maidens in Uniform (Mädchen in Uniform, 1931) and Jean Vigo’s anarchist chef-d’œuvre Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite, 1933). This theme has informed a wide variety of genres and seen wide range of resolutions, especially at times when young generations yield more social fears than hope. Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (Hets, 1944), Zoltán Fábri’s Professor Hannibal (Hannibál tanár úr, 1956), Jan Troell’s Who Saw Him Die? (Ole dole doff, 1968), Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1969), Sidney Lumet’s Child’s Play (1972), — these are just a few of the classical masterpieces devoted to the topic, all of them marked by anxious anticipation of a future that has radically severed its ties with the past. At the turn of the 20th century, the number of such works grew exponentially. And even if one could brush away Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, 2000) as a too phantasmagorical and non-committal model (although in fact it wasn’t), a long train of other candidates vie for attention. Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre les murs, 2008) received the Palm d’Or in the same year when Skirt Day (La journée de la jupe) brought Isabelle Adjani her fifth César, while The Class (Klass, 2007) by Ilmar Raag went to become the most famous Estonian movie ever because of its inexorable elaboration on this topic. The debut film of young Slovenian director Rok Bicek Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik) is the latest original contribution to this trend.

The film is about a new schoolteacher who – according to present-day pedagogical standards – is way too strict and exigent, therefore his appointment in the aftermath of a student’s suicide causes a full-scale rebellion, accompanied with accusations of Nazi-style demeanor. This story might have been told in black-and-white terms as a perennial struggle of Good vs Evil, that is, as struggle between Freedom, Knowledge, Responsibility, on one hand, and Oppression, Ignorance, Mayhem, on the other. Yet Responsibility and Knowledge might easily fall on the Evil side, while Ignorance and Mayhem in certain cases might be seen as Good. Another conventional way of presenting this complicated story by circumventing moral judgement altogether for fear of being seen as biased, would have been as a “slice of life,” which is conducive to  the “wise” and distanced conclusion (so irresistible for a debutant) that there is no “right” or “wrong” but only an all-absorbing Existential Complexity. Between these two possibilities, there is squashed (literally!) a third one, which Rok Bicek has chosen.

Two factors have proven decisive for the success of the film.

The first is the sound script, subtle and smart, rife with witty nuances,  free of political bias and prescriptive considerations. A case to point is a scene in which a student calls the teacher a “Nazi,” and in the next one addresses her Chinese classmate as a “rice-muncher.” Although the action takes place entirely on school premises – except for the epilogue – the film never feels claustrophobic which, paradoxically, is to the scriptwriter and not to the cameraman or the director. The versatile narrative offers an unexpected new turn in every scene. Perhaps the best cast scene of film (unquestionably the most ambitious and difficult one) is the teachers-parents meeting, where the causes for the ideological prejudices and psychological hang-ups of the children could easily be identified in their parents’ demeanour.

The second decisive factor, albeit obvious, is equally important: the role of the protagonist, the disgraced professor, is played by Igor Samobor, arguably the most prominent Slovenian actor nowadays. He unequivocally defuses any and all doubts that his students’ accusations might be true. What for an actor of a minor statue would have been a challenge, is handled by Samobor with graceful ease, and as soon as he appears on screen and starts talking, all suspicions dwindle. Samobor’s nuanced and sensitive presence sustains not only the aesthetic balance in the film vis-a-vis his inexperienced young colleagues, but also its moral clarity with regard to the complicated narrative and the conflicting psychology of his adolescent detractors. This turns his pedagogical assessments into indisputable verdicts, much more convincing than raging sincerity of his immature opponents. He is a professional, in the most old-fashioned (i. e. most powerful) sense of this word, on and off screen. Being the leading man of the Slovenian National Theatre is the best proof of Samobor’s flair for human nature… Impeccable as the film itself, his  professor Zupan proves a well-forgotten truth: the idea of freedom could only be understood and function amongst responsible people, who know and respect the rites, the rules and the law of their community. Spontaneity and sincerity do not necessarily amount to freedom – often withholding sincerity is a more eloquent sign of freedom. In a similar way rebellion is more often than not sign of inability to be free. Any moral commitment deserves  respect; the inability to make it  does not.

Edited by Christina Stojanova