TIFF 2023 Review: “The Teacher” Outlines a Conflict That Leaves Everyone as Prisoners of War

“After everything you’ve been through, do you think there’ll still be justice?” Adam (Muhammad Abed El Rahman) asks Basem (Saleh Bakri) in “The Teacher,” after his older brother Yacoub is shot to death in an Israeli-occupied territory of Palestine. Basem can muster up only a “maybe” for his English student, not wanting to discourage him from believing that his brother’s death won’t be in vain and yet also well aware how the prevailing system has been devastating to him personally when his son was arrested for being at a protest and sentenced as an adult, never to be seen again. The two start spending more time with one another outside the classroom after Yacoub’s death in Farah Nabulsi’s engaging drama, first brought together as more than teacher and student after Yacoub has emerged himself from prison and reintegrating back into his studies.

It’s not only Basem who takes a special interest in the brothers, but a British social worker named Lisa (Imogen Poots), who has volunteered at the school, and no sooner do they arrive to check in on the family after hours than the brothers find themselves being evicted from their home by Israeli forces, lighting a match under Yacoub when he sees a nearby olive field being set on fire to want to do something about it, leading to his eventual demise. When tensions in the area are even higher than usual, due to an American soldier being held hostage somewhere in the Palestinian underground, with his parents prodding the Israeli forces to find him, Basem urges Adam to temper his anger and lie low, advice that you learn he’s taken himself for entirely different reasons.

Although Nabulsi’s frequent cutbacks to the storyline of the soldier’s parents isn’t all that subtle in telegraphing an inevitable intersection, “The Teacher” still surprises with how exactly they coalesce and although it doesn’t skimp on suspense when Basem has to constantly worry about all the secrets he’s keeping, Nabulsi finds an intriguing dimension to the character as one of the things Basem has to fear the most is how his moral standing erased bit by bit in the eyes of Adam, acting in pursuit of a righteous cause, but no different in how he goes about it than his adversaries. Suddenly, his position of influence on the young man becomes a concern when the example he’s setting could be detrimental to what he actually wants for him and Bakri, such a subtle and stoic presence in such films recently as “The Blue Caftan” and “Costa Brava Lebanon,” is never less than magnetic, holding together a drama in which his past only gradually rises to the surface, but he wears it on his face from the first frame on.

Well aware of the larger political forces at play, “The Teacher” delivers on the personal toll of living under occupation, not only in how limitations are imposed practically, but psychologically as Basem and Adam comport themselves to a situation they know to be deeply unfair and are conscious of how they’re valued by the rest of the world when prisoner exchanges can put an actual number on what their lives are worth relative to someone from another country. Nabulsi doesn’t waste time on the origin of these unfortunate circumstances, but how they shape generations in which a cycle is bound to repeat itself and while the writer/director can’t go so far as to propose an end, its ripple effects are drawn clearly to reverberate in an entirely different way well after the film ends, passing on a bit of hope instead of fear.

“The Teacher” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th at 9:15 pm at Scotiabank 13.

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