1983

I was away in Canberra for a belated/extended Queen’s Birthday long weekend so it was only at the last minute on my return on the Wednesday after that I arranged to go and see some films at the Sydney Film Festival.

The first, on Thursday night, was Call me by your name. D (who can only be persuaded to go to the cinema to see “gay” films) came with me for that.  I sensed while I was watching that this might well be an adaptation of a novel, and indeed that turns out to be the case.  The film is full of little details shown to us which, to me, at least, were not really explicable at the time and are only made retrospectively clear by reading up on the book.

The story is set “somewhere in Northern Italy.”  The context for the depicted coming-of-age is that European kind of long languid summer which we don’t really have here in Australia.  (A quibble: even this European summer could not really have been as languid for the 17-year-old protagonist as depicted. Surely he needed to put in a bit of piano practice?)  It is all very beautiful in a Merchant-Ivory kind of way (Ivory wrote the script).  I enjoyed it, as I think did D, though he afterwards observed that he feels he is too old for this kind of movie.

On Friday afternoon I snuck away early from work to see The Teacher .  I was drawn to this in part because of my own friendships (dating from Berlin 1987) with a family from die ehemaliger DDR.  One feature of life in the DDR, and I think of all then-communist states, was that in the absence of a market economy, people resorted to informal networks for exchanges of goods and services and favours.  (Not that this doesn’t occur always, but then and there it was to a greater extent than since or then in the “West.”)   As the eponymous teacher (in the then Czechoslovakia) asks, “Shouldn’t we all help each other?”

Ironically, my East German friends remember this response to adversity favourably as giving rise to a greater social connectedness than under capitalism – which on one view just substitutes different adversities such as lack of money for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

But back to the film.

At the start we see the teacher getting each child in her middle-school class to tell her what their parents do.  Helping each other, in this case, turns out to mean the parents helping the teacher, in exchange for which she dispenses favouritism and tip-offs as to what to revise for class quizzes.  That may seem benign.  The darker side is if co-operation is not forthcoming, because the flip side of favouritism is victimisation of the children of parents who refuse to play the game.

As the music makes clear from the outset, this is all played as a comedy, obviously with a bite.  Zuzana Mauréry in the title role gives a bravura performance.

Both films were screened at the State Theatre, which for me was part of the point of going. In these multiplex days there is something of a time warp in going there – not just for the glorious fantasy architecture, but also of being part of a really big audience with a sense of occasion.

At the start when I go to the State I always have a bit of a double-take at the relatively small (to the size of the cinema and the proscenium) screen. In fact, I find I adjust to that quite quickly, and the sound system (obviously updated) rises well to the feel of the big room full of people.

The afternoon session of The Teacher still had a bit of the duffle-coat-and-and-thermos atmosphere of film festivals of yore.

The other more specific time warp was that both films were set in 1983.

In CMBYN that presumably came from the novel. The film signalled it in various ways, starting with the Sony walkman (Sony also produced the film) which the young protagonist was wedded to as he transcribed music with pencil and paper, and including the various popular-music-themed t-shirts he sported. Obviously cars and decor also matched the period. My own memory of 1983 is that news of HIV/AIDS was beginning to trickle out. Yes, I know the first news was in 1981, but I wonder if the boy’s parents would have been quite so open to his having a gay romance even a year later, in 1984. At the very least, they would have surely felt obliged to have a little chat about precautions.

In The Teacher, the period setting obviously had a specific historical function – the eponymous teacher is also a Communist Party leader and the willingness or unwillingness of any of the parents to complain has a lot to do with that. A particularly delicious aspect of the film is its period retro-look. As the reviewer in The Hollywood Reporter puts it:

Cinematographer Martin Ziaran, art director Juraj Fabry and costume designer Katarina Strbova Bielikova have come up with a warm look, with colorful, 1970s-like patterns. This initially counterintuitive choice is the opposite of the cold, austere and bleak way in which the Romanian New Wave has visualized the Communist era, for example. But it works beautifully as a counterpoint because despite the warmly nostalgic look, the film’s themes and message make it clear the era was not something we should look back on fondly in any way.

That’s a US perspective. I’m not sure if things are quite so black-and-white as that (the film itself offers a little 1991 postlude).

I’m probably a bit of a fraud to claim any film-festival-going credentials for having seen either of these films. Given Sony’s moniker on CMBYN and Palace Cinema’s on The Teacher my guess is that, provided you live in a metropolitan area of Australia, you can expect to see both of these films coming soon to a cinema near you.

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