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Review | ‘Radical’ shares the story of an inspirational teacher

Radical Dir: Christopher Zalla ★ ★ ★ ★ ½

There have been many films that focus on teachers who have made a difference. This Spanish language film, written and directed by Christopher Zalla and winning the Festival Favourite Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, is based on actual events.

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Matamoros is one of the poorest towns in Mexico. Plagued with violence and corruption, its school is ranked last in Mexico’s standardised national exam. Nobody really wants to teach at a school without resources where more than half the students are failing or dropping out, but Sergio (Eugenio Derbez) is determined to make the students the centre of his classes rather that the topics he is meant to be teaching.

Principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad) watches as the unconventional teacher throws out the curriculum and challenges the students to investigate and learn about the things that interest them in the world around them. The radical approach to teaching seems to be headed for disaster as all the other teachers drill their students for the approaching test.

There are some incredible performances from the children who are not actors but locals. Nico (Danilo Guardiola) thinks that school is a bit of a joke as his brother has already promised him a job with his violent drug-dealing gang, and he has already been doing courier work for the gang.

Paloma Novola (Jennifer Trejo) lives on the edge of the city garbage dump with her ailing father who tries to recycle rubbish. He tells Paloma that her dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer will only set her up for disappointment, and he burns the science magazines she finds at the dump and hides in her room.

Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis) loves to read and pours over all the philosophy books in the local library, but her mother is expecting another baby and struggling financially. Lupe has to leave school to work and also look after her younger brother who is too young to go to school.

The real Sergio Juárez is still teaching sixth grade teacher in Matamoros, Mexico. The film not only captures what a great inspiration he has been, but the great results the students have achieved under his ‘radical’ instruction.

Christopher Zalla has said, “His great act of heroism was in challenging a system that doesn’t seem to care about what happens in its dilapidated schools, while opening his class’s minds to the true joys of learning.”

Lezly Herbert

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