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The Substitute

Rachel Kent

Writers: Diego Lerman, Maria Meira and Luciana De Mello

Director: Diego Lerman

Literary people have mixed experiences in the classroom. DH Lawrence regarded his pupils as ‘a pack of unruly hounds’. Kate Clanchy, on the other hand, successfully  encourages hers to write poetry. In Diego Lerman’s The Substitute , Lucio, a college professor and novelist, has to convince a class of underprivileged teenagers in Buenos Aires that there is any point to literature.

At the same time he’s dealing with a recent break-up, a truculent adolescent daughter and an ailing father. On top of his family issues he gets involved in the  precarious life of one of his students, Dilan, played by Lucas Arrua.

It is difficult to fit The Substitute into a genre. It’s reminiscent of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, but we only see Lucio in the classroom  a handful of times, so there’s not much evidence that his attempt to get his class to write detective stories really succeeds. In fact what seems to win the class over is his admiring reaction to an impromptu rap by a student named Walter (Jonathan Bogado). Lerman pays equal attention to Lucio’s own family relationships. He is shown struggling to be authoritative with a father unwillingly relinquishing his role as community benefactor – and a daughter, Sol, just beginning to assert her own independence as a person.

For the students and all but one of the teachers (Clara, played by Maria Merlino), Lerman used non-professional actors, and it works. The students look unaffectedly bored, although astonishingly well-behaved – voices are only raised when the police arrive. The school staff-room feels authentic – the tepid welcome, the confusing matching of names to faces, and the fact, never revealed to outsiders, that you have to bring your own cup. Long close ups allow just enough time to consider what a character is feeling. After Lucio has left his father (Alfredo Castro) in hospital, the camera lingers on a face that is both melancholy and content. Small gestures carry large significance. When Lucio goes to collect his daughter he glances at the doorbell, then takes out his key, briefly irresolute; then he puts away his key and presses the bell.

The acting is universally excellent. Castro’s performance – irascible and vigorous at first, grey-faced and resigned near the end – is touching. Juan Minujin who plays Lucio, looks like a Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait – in a good way. He is often seen in profile, looking straight ahead, as if a kind of Everyman figure. His face expresses everything – anger, grief and quiet delight when the students applaud at the end of the year. However, the stand-out actor is Renata Lerman, who plays Sol. Children in films rarely do more than fit the story-line. Lerman , who has the face of an enraptured saint (sometimes – she can also do every nuance of sulkiness), has unforgettable presence. Admittedly, having your own father as director is the optimal condition for turning in a performance of obstinate  refusal, but she has a self-possession that is compelling to watch.

As much as for the acting, The Substitute is worth watching for Wojciech Staron’s cinematography. In fact, there are times when the picture overwhelms the plot. Near the beginning, Lucio steps into the shower. He closes the moulded glass door, and his body is split into a kaleidoscope pattern. Unforgettably, mundane net curtains dance around in a breeze, somewhere utterly unexpected. Often people are filmed in reflection, or half-concealed by lights shining through a window. A student’s mother, seemingly a drug addict, is transformed into an almost angelic figure by being filmed against a brilliant white light. Colours are important. Lucio is first seen in public at a literary event, with warm coloured books and rich green paintwork. In contrast the classroom has plain brick walls, and the students wear garish colours. As in Renaissance Annunciation paintings, there is often a vertical line separating characters – or sometimes it’s horizontal, and sometimes a real barrier, like a grille or a wire fence.

One of the students suggests that “literature helps us tell stories.” This film could use a little more of that. Certain key plot points seem to have been edited out. It is not clear – to an English-speaking viewer at any rate – that Lucio’s father is opening a soup kitchen, not a restaurant. Clara invites Lucio home “for a drink,” which turns out to mean fervid kissing – at least – but all we know of their relationship is that she showed him how to get to the staff room. Most confusingly, towards the end, Dilan runs away in panic, incidentally leaving behind a caterer’s nightmare. He races through a forest of concrete, and then Lucio arrives in his car. How does Lucio know where to find him?

Nonetheless this is a visually gorgeous film with characters you can care about. Sol strongly resists her father’s attempts to get her into a prestigious school. Unmistakable, but subtly conveyed, is the message that education, taken for granted by some, is an unreachable luxury for others.

The Substitute is released in cinemas on 20 January 2023.


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