At some point, I imagine it will get old to keep watching sardonic dark satires about life in the Communist days made in the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Bloc; they've been all but a cliché on the film festival circuit for as long as I've been going to film festivals. For whatever reason, though, they tend to be very good, and as long as they keep being as utterly terrific as The Teacher, I hope and pray that the genre never dies. Director Jan Hřebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovský have graced us with one of the sharpest, meanest, and most unpleasantly hilarious post-Communist satires I've seen in years, while at the same time expanding their scope just enough that you can never retrench to the comforting thought that it's only the Communists that they have in mind to critique.

The action takes place in Czechslovakia in the 1983-'84 school year; just far enough from the death of the regime that nobody was quite aware that it was right around the corner, but maybe close enough that the sort of people inclined to being miserable little mid-level toadies drunk on their own hint of authoritarian power were really going for it, because there wasn't too much left to be had. One of these people is Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry), a relatively recent hire at a middle school in Bratislava, who is generally disliked by the rest of the faculty and considered as something of a selfish tyrant. Which might not be such an intractable problem, but for one thing: she's also the school's official Party representative, giving her an incredible amount of power to pursue her shabby little fantasies of control. Mostly, these take the form of blackmailing her student's parents for various favors and presents by holding the children's grades hostage.

The film takes the form of a meeting between the parents of Drazdechová's students and a pair of appropriately nervous faculty members, the school's head teacher (Ina Gogálová-Marojevič) and her deputy (Monika Čertenzi), with the stated intention of informing the rest of the parents about a complaint that has been semi-officially made against Drazdechová. The unstated intention is to secure the signatures of enough parents that the dreadful teacher can be reasonably ousted without any undue fear of political repercussions. At the onset, only three parents can be counted on: the Kučeras, Marke (Csongor Cassai) and Iveta (Zuzana Konečná), whose daughter Danka (Tamara Fischer) was a particularly helpless target of Drazdechová's wrath, and Jaroslav Binder (Martin Havelka), a loutish blue-collar drunk who nevertheless has a firm set of principles and refuses to give in to the teacher's nasty little demands; the result is that his son Filip (Oliver Oswald) has been forced to give up his wrestling practice, just as Danka has been pressured out of gymnastics. The other waverer is Václav Littmann (Peter Bebjak), newly arrived in the area and anxious to make a good impression: his wife, a genius astrophysicist, has defected to the West, leaving him and their bright son Karol (Richard Labuda) under considerable suspicion - Václav himself has been forced to abandon the research he was completing with his wife, to take a job washing windows. He has maybe the best reason of everybody to hate Drazdechová: rather than simply asking him for idle favors, she's been openly pressuring him into a romantic relationship. Opposing these four are the rest of the parents, operating from a number of motivations: belief in Drazdechová's mission, a willingness to overlook unsavory behavior as long as their kids get good grades, or just a whole lot of fear that Drazdechová's Party ties can make everybody's life agonizing.

As with any good movie, the appeal of The Teacher isn't simply in what story is being told, but how it's being told. Here, Jarchovský offers an elegant little puzzle box, perfectly simple in its complexity: the stories of the three main children are told in parallel to their parents' humiliating attempts to sway the mood of the room against Drazdechová, overlapping with each other and filling in each other's gaps, and generally making a little bit of a game of uncovering the full extent of Drazdechová's wickedness with the same sense of dawning horror that the parents themselves feel (the film editor, Vladimír Barák, does an extraordinary job of matching the two timelines up points where the images and narrative momentum echo in each plotline in wonderfully intuitive ways). That is to say, there proves to be one major incident that triggered this meeting, and the whole room knows what it is, but The Teacher makes us wait for it: indeed, it makes us wait to even realise that there's information we're being deprived of. And that waiting neatly makes us work to clarify our feelings about the teacher, just as her antagonists do.

When it's not being a nifty structural game, The Teacher gets by on being a hell of a great satire, doing a wonderful job of depicting how easy it is to abuse the system for a person who lacks any sort of moral center, and even more wonderfully depicting the hopelessness of the parents for whom this kind of abuse is so much a part of life that it's hard to even imagine fighting it. Naturally, a great deal of this comes down to the character of Drazdechová, who is an impressive piece of writing to start with, all passive-aggressive sugar and unctuousness, brought to life by Mauréry in a sublime performance of smiling meanness. It's not the most nuanced or creative performance in the world - she is, to all intents and purposes, Communist Dolores Umbridge, and Mauréry plays her with a lot of the same tricks Imelda Staunton used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - but endlessly delightful and impossible to get around; every time we think that we'll stopped being appalled by the character, Mauréry throws just a hint more acidity into her portrayal.

It's not exactly new in any way, but Hřebejk keeps the spiky, cutting humor flowing, and the film's handful of missteps (the repetitive dialogue in the middle, an odd decision to do "where are they now?" cards for the three children) are certainly swallowed up by the things it does so damn right, like it's exhaustingly snug editing, impressive depiction of social pressure, and a great final scene that caustically points out that Drazdechová's brand of small-minded control was given a certain shape by Communism, but was not invented by it and outlived that system's collapse. It even earns a crowd-pleasing ending that by all rights should be entirely hokey. I don't know that it's any likelier to have an extensive second life than any of its genre stablemates (this kind of movie tends to disappear once its festival run is over), but it's certainly as good as or better than anything similar I've seen in a long while.