The Czech drama The Country Teacher's title character (Pavel Liska) uses a snail shell as a prop to introduce rural middle schoolers to the wonders of natural science. Unfortunately, a snail could also represent the pace of the thoughtful yet sluggish character study.
The Country Teacher at first resembles an inspirational teacher drama when the taciturn instructor mysteriously arrives at a small Czech farming community. He taught previously at the same Prague prep school as his domineering mother, and escaping from under her wing would seem to be ample justification to relocate. In actuality, he's trying to flee the kind of personal crisis that will follow no matter where he goes. (I won’t give it away lest I spoil the film’s only surprise.) His secret complicates his budding relationships with widowed cattle herder Mary (Zuzana Bydzovská) and her brooding teenage son Lada (Ladislav Sedivý).
Bydzovská nearly carries The Country Teacher on her own sturdy shoulders. Well-cast as a homely but sweet-natured woman with an earthy sensuality, she can toss a hay bale or drive a tractor like a model for a Soviet propaganda poster. Director Bohdan Sláma films the farm scenes with sunshiney cinematography that finds the beauty in country life without sugar-coating its realities. Mary and her neighbors seem to have little to do at night but hang out in a pub that looks like a harshly lit family kitchen, where the regulars play the same polka song over and over. The town’s sameness repels while its beauty attracts.
The Country Teacher’s careful groundwork in character builds to some moments of real tenderness, but not enough to infuse the film with life. The movie combines outdated sexual politics with the friction caused by the teacher’s old acquaintance (Marek Daniel), who seems to be bisexual out of spite. Plus, Liska (who resembles Quantum of Solace’s Mathieu Almaric) captures the character’s passivity a bit too well — you spend most of the film wanting to shake him.
An old lady who voices portents of doom, such as the teacher’s penchant for listening to bleak music, keeps the mood downbeat, while the subtitled dialogue comes across so plain it feels as if the translation lost some nuance in the original script. Lines such as “If we don’t understand nature, we don’t understand ourselves” come across as heavy-handed metaphors, as do two calf-birthing scenes more graphic than the one from City Slickers. The Country Teacher earns no more than the kind of passing grade that leaves room for improvement.