Set in post-WWII Czechoslovakia, this charming coming-of-age picture starts raucously but wins over viewers once they're acclimated to director Jan Sverak's broad, sentimental style. A 1991 Oscar nominee for best foreign film (which Sverak's KOLYA won in 1996), THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL bears
some of the humorous and political hallmarks of the golden age of Czech cinema, when Sverak's progenitors like Jiri Menzel, Milos Forman, and Jan Kadar reigned supreme.
At the tail end of WWII, impressionable Eda (Vaclav Jakoubek) and mischievous Tonda (Radoslav Budac) are best friends growing up in a suburb of Prague. Tonda often has to pull his gambling father out of pubs, but Eda looks up to his dad, Soucek (Zdenek Sverak), who works at the town's power-plant.
Eda, Tonda and their classmates delight in rattling their grade-school teacher, Miss Maxova (Daniela Kolarova). When she has a nervous breakdown, she is replaced with a military disciplinarian, Igor Hnizdo (Jan Triska).
Despite exaggerating his service exploits, charismatic Hnizdo whips the unruly students into shape. Although Hnizdo infuses his classes with vitality and expands the boys' horizons, his weakness for women nearly gets him into trouble. The details of an out-of-town affair surface when he uses Tonda
and Eda to take the woman a letter and they get lost. He is temporarily dismissed when he is reported to be wooing twin teenagers, but rehired when the principal notices how much the boys admire him (and a doctor reports that the two girls are still virgins).
Soucek helps Hnizdo chaperone a field trip to an abandoned fort, and gains more admiration from son Eda when he bravely but safely detonates a land mine to protect the children. As Eda matures, he learns the downside of childish pranks when Tonda loses his fingers while fabricating a homemade
bottle-bomb. When the neighborhood gossip mistakenly reports his father's death at the power-plant, Eda is shattered; ultimately, he's relieved his father was uninjured by a blown-out transformer. As the townspeople attend a school celebration commemorating the first anniversary of the liberation
of Czechoslovakia, Eda counts his blessings, unaware of the Communist turmoil awaiting his country.
Weaving an artful tapestry of small-town life, director Sverak lovingly adopts a picaresque approach to this remembrance of boyhood. If some of the villagers' stories (e.g., a married hypochondriac afraid to have sex) seem peripheral, the focus on inquisitive Eda always switches the rambling movie
back on track. The early scenes of THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL are the least effective, as the disobedient kids bait the hapless Miss Maxova like something out of an Eastern European John Hughes comedy. The caricaturing of the clueless teacher and the idealization of the boys backfires, making the boys
seem less like bored imps than junior sadists who've been studying Lord of the Flies. Once popinjay Hnizdo enters the picture with his don't-spare-the-rod-or-the-imagination techniques, the movie becomes a vigorous examination of childhood hero worship and small-town foibles. It is a testament to
Sverak's directorial aplomb that he knows how to keep the audience off guard so that Eda's experiences seem recognizably universal but slightly off kilter. In locking us into a child's-eye perspective, Sverak makes the bittersweet memories of half a century ago seem remarkably fresh and pertinent.
(Sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Set in post-WWII Czechoslovakia, this charming coming-of-age picture starts raucously but wins over viewers once they're acclimated to director Jan Sverak's broad, sentimental style. A 1991 Oscar nominee for best foreign film (which Sverak's KOLYA won in 1… (more)