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REWIND

'Teacher' Can Make a Difference

February 04, 1993|JON MATSUMOTO

"Why Shoot the Teacher?" takes place on the frozen plains of Saskatchewan during the Great Depression. And at times you can almost feel a chill running through your body as you watch the film's characters play out their lives on this harsh, unyielding landscape in the dead of winter.

But Silvio Narizzano's charming Canadian movie is far from a bleak downer. Thanks to an ingratiatingly subtle humor and a refusal to lapse into weepy melodrama, "Why Shoot the Teacher?" ultimately leaves one with a tingly warmth.

The movie is presented through the eyes of Max Brown (Bud Cort). Desperate for a job, Max leaves his home in the relatively worldly province of Ontario in order to teach the children in the tiny prairie community of Willow Green, Saskatchewan.

Dressed in a conservative suit, young Max looks like a Mormon missionary amid the more scruffily attired denizens of Willow Green. Initially, "Teacher"--as he is called by both students and town folk--simply isn't suited for the austere living conditions. In one lighthearted scene, Max desperately scrambles for a suitable toilet after discovering that the outhouse has been made inoperable by the freezing cold.

However, the soft-spoken Max is a truly committed teacher. He deeply wants to help his students, who range from a lovable first-grader who needs toilet training to a rebellious boy of high school age.

Despite the many problems posed by such a mixed bag of pupils, Max perseveres and finds great internal reward in instructing these culturally sheltered children. When Max enthusiastically participates in a class drama dubbed "Shakespeare in Saskatchewan," you can tell that he finally feels at home in his adopted community.

Yet not everyone feels at ease in the remote Willow Green. The Depression has taken its toll on the Bishop family, which has been forced off of its land by creditors. For Alice Field (Samantha Eggar), life is a monotonous dead-end. An educated Englishwoman trapped in a marriage to a surly and uncommunicative husband, Alice comes alive when she acts out a few scenes from a play with the similarly literate Max.

In the end, Max doesn't come close to transforming his students into whiz kids. But he does show how the simple compassion and good intentions of one person can enrich the lives of those around him.

"Why Shoot the Teacher?" (1977), directed by Silvio Narizzano. 101 minutes. Not rated.

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