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Watching this crime drama by Argentinian Diego Lerman (The Invisible Eye, A Sort of a Family) reminded me of an American film that was also popular here in the mid-nineties. Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Thoughts” was a teacher in a public American high school who tried to inspire mostly uninterested students, and a substitute literature teacher in “The Replacement” has a similar task. Lucio (Juan Minujin) is a divorced poet and literary critic from Buenos Aires who by force of chance accepted a job as a substitute teacher in a public high school in the capital of Argentina.

Students are expectedly disinterested. Some even fall asleep during the class, most answer him brazenly, but Lucio will try to encourage these teenagers, who mostly grow up in poverty, and some of them are already involved in crime. It can be guessed that Lucio accepted this job also because he is close to his sick father whom everyone knows as a Chilean (the excellent Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, whose character still remains rather sketchy for me). He is a prominent member of the local community, a cafe owner connected to the mayor, which is why he is in conflict with a local gangster known as Mad Dog who also has political ambitions.

One of Lucio’s students, Dylan, helps the Chilean and does some wage work for him, but he gets involved in the drug business and one day the school is raided by the police because a large quantity of drugs was found there. The Mad Dog is, as his nickname suggests, furious, because the rule that the school is a drug-free zone has been broken, and his political ambitions are now seriously shaken, and he is sure that the Chilean and the mayor will place him over the kid. Thus, young Dylan will be attacked by a dangerous gangster, and the substitute teacher will try to protect his student.

Lerman shot this dark crime drama in a realistic style, with a restless hand-held camera, and “El suplente” had its premiere in the competition program of the festival in San Sebastian. This film also stands out for its quality acting performances, especially for Minujin as a teacher with a mountain of private problems who still wants to change something. Again after “A Sort of a Family”, Lerman hired Spanish actress Barbara Lennie, but this time she has a cameo role as Lucio’s ex-wife, with whom he shares custody of his 12-year-old daughter.