El Suplente (The Substitute) (2022)
This is an educationalist’s dream — for at the end of the movie *spoiler alert* students are actively engaged in learning!!! However, Dangerous Minds or Dead Poets Society this is not — it’s much more intriguing as it slowly burns away and presents its characters with a series of ethical choices. What will they do and what impact will their decisions make?
Truly global cinema as a co-production from Argentina, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and France! the story is set in Buenos Aires. Lucio (an outsider because his father is a celebrated left-wing man of the people) is a driven, middle class university professor. His dad known as ‘the Mexican’ works among the economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised, wheeling and dealing to create a kitchen and employment for the people, run by the people. All the while avoiding teetering into corruption and local politics.
Lucio’s dad challenges his son to make a difference — this results in Lucio becoming a substitute English Literature teacher in a school near to where his dad works and lives. There is a huge culture clash — his students range from quietly hard working to uninspired, disengaged and disenchanted. It’s intriguing to see who has stationery and what they have — we see their economic backgrounds and parental/carer relationships exposed in the opening of a pencil case (or the lack of one). It’s when he gets them repping detective stories that they come alive — and yet their own lives are so painful and so hard. The school also become a centre for political dispute, when students are found dealing drugs — and yet who coerced them into doing this? The Mayor or the local drug dealer trying to muscle in on what his dad is trying to do? And what shade is being cast at whom?
Respected only because of who his dad is, Lucio struggles to be seen and heard — for himself. He also isn’t particularly likable — he’s a hard exam-focused ‘get in the right school or else’ dad, struggling to communicate with his wife who has moved on (and turned vegan!) and a nightmare neighbour, drilling at unsociable. Yet, he deeply cares about his dad — supporting him at hospital appointments and over time, starts to see the humanity in himself — and others.
One of his students is under threat from the local drug tsar (and needs to be hidden and sprung out of this impossible situation), and another from her deeply concerned parents (who want her to do well, and actually learn stuff which gets qualifications at school — not how to take and deal drugs). There are some painful conversations — but the prof is genuine, and through his dad’s suffering (and his students) learns to see himself and others. He also gets to do some awesome getaway driving at one point….
I’ve never seen a movie show love and care between father and son so tenderly before, nor grief (as the prof runs to be with his father in hospital or faces his father’s funeral with the loving support of others). Even as he takes on his father’s mantle — of seeing and loving people — there is a further moral dilemma, and decision to make — the community meal appears to be poisoned, will the young boy who knows say something…or not? The tension of his heart-mind-conscience struggle is immense and palpable as the clock ticks….
It doesn’t shrike from showing the hardness of life nor the acceptable face of gang life, nor the hardness of how young people are treated and exposed in painful situations. For me, it’s the little details which add to this — how the teacher looks the other way and doesn’t challenge when he sees boys counting out money in the lavatories; the parents who almost live inside a cage in a tough environment (and yet inside, it’s beautiful and tranquil) — in their determination to keep out evil things and succeed; the lack of resources of an economically disadvantaged school — it’s next to a freeway, the staff room is a glass bowl, tightly packed; the students won’t admit that they want to contribute (and one even smuggles a book away to read like an opioid). Even so, Diego Lerman insists, it doesn’t have to be this way…Nonetheless, what will Lucio do with his new power and influence? How much will he co-operate with the Mayor and how much with the drug lord? How much will they threaten him, those he loves and disrupt? How much will his ego get in the way? And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Or fail to see and cherish, nurture the souls of others?)
Most of all, this is about the teachers in the challenging and underfunded schools putting in the relentless hard graft every day — rejoice this movie shouts, for there is the reward of respect, active engaged learning and love of learning for learning’s sake. Whilst this may be a sweetener for the educational community (and a happy ending of sorts), there are still many unsolved endings — and what will Lucio and others choose next? Les Misérables it is not — nevertheless this is not a teacher ‘saves the projects’ movie either. But something more beautiful and nuanced — much of it due to Wojciech Staroń’s gorgeous cinematography.