Class Enemy (Razredni sovraznik): Venice Review

A gripping debut film about out-of-control group dynamics.

28-year-old Slovenian director Rok Bicek makes an assured debut feature about a high-school class that spins out of control after a suicide.

Group dynamics are dissected with chilling precision in Class Enemy (Razredni sovraznik), the assured debut feature of Slovenian shorts filmmaker Rok Bicek.

Loosely based on actual events that occurred at his high school when the now 28-year-old filmmaker was a freshman, the tense and gripping narrative centers on the out-of-control reactions of a class after one of their peers has killed herself and the students gang up on their strict new teacher. A Venice Critics’ Week premiere, the solidly acted Class Enemy has what it takes to worm its way into not only new filmmaker showcases but also general festival slates and possibly a few foreign theaters.

It’s almost the end of the school year when the easygoing homeroom teacher Nusa (Masa Derganc) of a senior class goes on maternity leave. She’s replaced by a new German teacher, Robert (Igor Samobor), who seems to be less in tune with modern educational methods than she is -- he calls the class undisciplined and unfocused when she suggests they are “just young” and actually “very nice.”

But the supposedly nice kids don’t warm to Robert, who demands a lot more discipline than Nusa. Things get quickly out of hand after he’s reprimanded the sensitive, piano-playing Sabina (Dasa Cupevski) in private, causing her to storm out of Robert’s office in tears. When the students learn Sabina committed suicide not much later, their scapegoat is an obvious one: Robert, though no one was present during their meeting -- actually shown in the film as a tough but not necessarily world-ending conversation -- and even the girl who's supposedly her best friend, Mojca (Doroteja Nadrah), didn’t really get to talk to Sabina before she left school never to return.

Lanky and tenebrous Luka (Voranc Boh), who has just lost his mother and who has thus got to deal with a double dose of unexpected grief, leads the charge against Robert, who continues to teach as if nothing happened even right after the funeral, prompting Luka to walk out and many of his classmates to follow suit.

The film was scripted by newcomer Bicek with his peer Nejc Gazvoda, whose 2011 debut A Trip was Slovenia’s Oscar submission, and veteran writer-director Janez Lapajne (Short Circuits), who also produced and helped edit the film. Their insightful screenplay paints the core group of a small dozen of students in a couple of quick but convincing brushstrokes, finding the right balance between individuality and what’s really the subject of the film: the uncontrollable force of group dynamics.

The choice of Robert’s teaching subject, German, is also cleverly (if occasionally somewhat obviously) used to advance the story and suggest things about Robert as an educator and as a person, though the command of German of veteran actor Samobor is unfortunately a bit more stilted than that of some of the students -- especially Primosz (Dan Mrevlje), appropriately the braniac of the class.

As the student rebellion mounts, Sabine’s death becomes almost an excuse for the adolescents to take over from those who are theoretically their superiors and it becomes increasingly clear that momentum, once achieved, can give a movement a life of its own no one fully controls anymore. Bicek also handsomely suggests how no one is entirely guilty or innocent and manages to insert some humor (of the it's-so-awkward-it's-funny kind) into the proceedings, especially during a parent-teacher meeting after things have reached their nadir. A moving essay read out by Mojca initially feels like an obligatory stop but Nadrah, like the other students a non-professional actress, infuses it with such a range of conflicting emotions it slowly transforms into a highlight.

Not only the class but also the teachers and the kids’ parents offer a miniature version of Slovenian society and acting is solid from top to bottom. Close ups of faces dominate the visuals, though the use of widescreen keeps things from becoming too claustrophobic. Cinematographer Fabio Stoll also never quite keeps his camera still, which gives the entire film an undercurrent of restlessness even in its quietest moments.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Triglav Film
Cast: Igor Samobor, Natasa Barbara Gracner, Tjasa Zeleznik, Masa Derganc, Robert Prebil, Voranc Boh, Jan Zupancic, Dasa Cupevski, Doroteja Nadrah
Director: Rok Bicek
Screenwriters: Nejc Gazvoda, Rok Bicek, Janez Lapajne
Producers: Aiken Veronika Prosenc, Janez Lapajne
Director of photography: Fabio Stoll
Production designer: Danijel Modrej
Costume designer: Bistra Borak
Editor: Janez Lapajne, Rok Bicek
Sales: Triglav Film
No rating, 112 minutes.