The substitute, a look at the invisible city and its problems

no spoilers

After placing in the Top 10 of the most watched in Argentina, the film Alternate comes to Mexican theaters. what’s it about? We tell you.

The substitute, a film by Diego Lerman, arrives in Mexican theaters (Photo: Pimienta Films)

It is a well-known story and widely addressed in the cinema from different readings. It’s about the inexperienced teacher who must deal with teenage students to gain his attention. This implies confronting himself and his core in order to connect with the students in his charge. In short, it is the premise of Alternate, Diego Lerman’s new film. But, for better or for worse, what makes it different from the others?

Here he tells us about the new experience of Lucio (Juan Minujín) as a substitute literature teacher in an urban high school. However, he is not in any part of the city. The school is located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, that is, in a marginal territory that seems like a small geographical accident that gives the impression of being in the way of the big city. Placing the conflict in this space is a success of the film. Why? Because in Mexico, if we assume the universality of marginalization in urban areas punished by neglect, it is identifiable to the periphery. In Mexico City, to be more precise, the periphery and its inhabitants are punished with contempt; they are made invisible due to classism, racism. Lerman makes visible those places and people that do not exist for the rest.

It does so through something that also resembles Mexico: the sale and consumption of drugs among the youth population. Lucio belatedly begins to take an interest in his students’ environment when the security authorities carry out a school raid that culminates in the arrest of a student for drug trafficking. Dilan, another of the students involved, finds himself in need of hiding after being threatened by a local drug lord with political aspirations.

After this situation comes an inconvenience in the way of approaching the film. And it is that when knowing the presence of organized crime to recruit and operate through students who live in the area, the intention of the director leans more towards the family conflicts of the teacher instead of attending to adolescents, who are the cause of his existence as a teacher, especially when the forces of order broke into a school classroom, a sign that things are not going well in that environment. However, that fact remains an anecdote as Lucio’s process to connect with his students softens.

At times it is lethargic and unnecessary to explore Lucio as a father who does not end up bursting or being fully loving towards his adolescent daughter who refuses to follow his orders, or as a man who seems to be intrigued but at the same time disregards the relationship that He supports his ex-wife with someone, or like a son who gives up on his emotions regarding what the father figure of El Chileno (a measured Alfredo Castro) is proposing to him. Lucio is a gray guy in conditions that alone require leaning to one extreme, either white or black. He stays in the middle except for a well-achieved sequence towards the end when he helps Dilan.

True, being a teacher is not easy, much less being a novice. But in order to understand the teacher, it is important to see him reflected in the actions of his students, as well as in the lives of those students themselves. Those details peek out with little depth in Alternate, which can cause empathic distance from the viewer with the rhythm of the film and its characters.

On the other hand, Lerman achieves in his intention to look towards the periphery that we question where the violence that oppresses that area is and who executes it, who are the corresponding authorities that have allowed or omitted the purchase and sale of drugs in schools, what guarantees are given to teachers who instruct in dangerous territories, where the adults or parents of these adolescents are. Alternate He already laid the first stone. Now it is a matter of continuing with this exploration of the invisible city, its problems and the educational system that develops in it.

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