I didn't tell anybody about it at first. I wanted to explore it on my own.
It premiered in Australia on the magnificent SBS network without fanfare or fuss. Although it had been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, it got no theatrical or video release.
Several years later, the director, Jan Sverak, would win an Academy Award for another film, Kolya ('96). Perhaps this award was intended to make good on the fact that Obecna Skola's Oscar had been stolen by the unworthy Mediterraneo (Italy). Among its equally unworthy competition that year were Children of Nature (Iceland) and Raise the Red Lantern (China). Only Sven Nykvist's The Ox (from Sweden) deserved to compete with Sverak's masterpiece.
Set in Czechoslovakia just after World War II, the film is about fathers and figures of authority. Are they our first heroes? Do they deserve respect? What example should they set? And when do we begin to see them as flawed human beings...like ourselves?
All of these questions are addressed thoroughly and in the most cinematic way.
Not surprisingly, the film was written by Zdenek Sverak, the director's father. He also stars as the father of the film's young hero, Eda (Václav Jakoubek), a wide-eyed boy...
who undertakes an incredible journey of self-discovery when a new schoolteacher, Ignor Hnizdo (Jan Triska), takes over his unruly class. Brandishing a sidearm and attired in military regalia, Igor uses stern authoritarian methods to whip the young rascals, who drove their previous teacher insane, into some sort of shape.
Gradually, his respect for them earns him theirs.
Of course, the film is about so much more, so you must see it to experience its many delights.
Sold as a movie for kids in some markets, it is certainly suitable for the young, but it is ultimately a movie for all. Under its sunny facade are darker, foreboding themes of race, national identity, revisionism, and sexuality.
Sverak's contrasting of the film's two father figures (Sverak and Trisca) is masterful, as is the way he handles young Eda's journey to a more mature world view.
A fascinating bit of character work is that Eda, the film's hero, believes he is his dead brother's "replacement". When the boys visit the cemetery where his brother now resides, Eda expresses this view while attempting to explain to his friend why his mother is always so paranoid about his safety. Ironically, his friend's parents care little for his well-being, and this results in a tragic event later.
Like Lasse Hallstrom's wonderful My Life As A Dog, Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo, Jean Loup Hubbert's Le Grand Chemin and Yves Roberts' My Father's Glory, the film drops us into a completely formed, utterly convincing world seen through the eyes of children. The bizarre rituals, the sensual discoveries, and the painful realizations of childhood are richly and sensitively conveyed.
So many aspects of Eda's life as a boy mirrored my own, despite the political and geographical differences.
When you're a kid, quality of life is the adventure you make.
The script is based on Zdenek Sverak's childhood, and this is why every emotional beat rings so true.
Watching it for the first time, I was mesmerized by its poetry and good humor.
Watching it for close to the twentieth time, I am still in awe of its accomplishments.
It would be neglectful of me not to mention the great Czech actors who make such colorful contributions to The Elementary School.
Rudolf Hrusínský, one of my favorite actors of all time, is positively glowing as the school's headmaster. Scenes where he attempts to get the school's PA system to work are hilarious, as is a terrific sequence where he reprimands the boys for sticking their tongues to the school's frozen, metal railings during Winter.
Hrusinky, a veteran of Czech cinema, also appeared in Jiri Menzel's excellent My Sweet Little Village; Menzel, in turn, has a guest part here as a good-natured doctor.
Another superb performance is that of Marek Endal as the hilarious "Rosenheim", the school's oversized bad boy. More "naughty" than truly bad, Endal strikes a perfect chord as a dopey juvenile delinquent whose mother is mortified when he plays an unpopular character in a school play.
From the superb scoring of Jiri Svoboda (why the hell isn't this score on CD?), and Prague's own Antonin Dvorak (RIP), to FA Brabec's exquisite cinematography, The Elementary School is in a class of its own.