Konchalovskiy's film admirably prefers nuance over propaganda.
In 1924, a former Red Army soldier is sent to the remote village of Kurkureu village (now in Kyrgyzstan) to teach children. He waves around the government order that has made education necessary while the people laugh at him. The idea of a school is unheard of in these parts and most cannot think why, if at all, their children need to study.
Komsomol (Bolot Beishenaleiv) wins the first round as he collects ragtag children and starts his first lesson in a hot and stuffy crumbling structure that served as a stable once. His image till now is of that righteous man with a purpose. He is able to convince Altynai (Natalya Arinbasarova) , a 15-year-old orphan to leave her caretakers and join him.
It is in the scene where Komsomol begins his first lessons Konchalovskiy displays that this is much more than a propaganda film. Or not really a propaganda film, at all.
When a child innocently asks if Lenin is going to die too, our hero turns into a fanatic and asks the child who taught him "counter-revolutionary teachings?" while shaking him violently. With extreme Right-Wing (read Fascism) once again taking root all over the world, this is a display of fanaticism cuts through the decades in an instant and, perhaps, more importantly, reveals us the layer of this character.
Later, as the disappointed children have left, he stands alone amidst the poultry, crying against a wall.
Komosomol is misguided but not a villain. His zealousness is a product of the times and Konchalovskiy knows this. One of the reasons that the film escaped the censors of the time for presenting Communism in this complex light is because the film also has a very recognizable villain. It is, of course, the richest person in the village. A bully money-lender who wants to take Altynai as his second wife.
The film benefits hugely from the work of cinematographer Georgy Rerberg. The vast (and harsh) natural surroundings offer many opportunities for picturesque shots but Rerberg and director Konchalovskiy match this with the meticulous interior life of the villagers too. There is a Tarkovsky connection here. Director Andrei Konchalovskiy had also co-written Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood and will go on to write Andrei Rublev with him.
Rerberg also shot The Mirror and The Stalker.
It is thanks to the complexity with which all viewpoints are considered that Pervyy Uchitel also becomes a comedy of sorts on "good intentions". Just because the area is remote, it does not mean that everyone will be eagerly waiting for "reform". There is a psychological intricacy, yes but this is also an astonishingly physical film. The actors are all committed to their parts and Konchalovskiy reveals a natural knack of drama (He will also go on to direct Sylvestor Stallone starrer Tango & Cash!)
No wonder that the ending here, despite a win for the Communist propaganda comes across as ambiguous. It must have left many with an uneasy feeling.
This is a masterpiece that deserves to be seen more.