Tender Moments in Hard Places: A Review of The Substitute (2022)
The Substitute (2022) was a surprising film — not only for its depiction of how the drug trade insidiously affects the community, but for its tenderness, and the everyday moments of humanity the characters are able to carve out.
The plot is deceptively simple — focusing on a substitute Literature professor, and his relationship with his family and his students; fleshed out by slow moments of tenderness or suspense.
It begins with Lucio (played by Juan Minujín), a substitute Literature professor at a local high school, who finds himself embroiled in a local scandal when illegal narcotics are found in the boys’ bathroom. The movie begins slowly, establishing his career as an author, and his introduction to the school as a new substitute, learning to work with high school children and all the challenges that comes with it.
Tensions escalate when the school is inundated with the military — because of the narcotics found, the school is lined with armed guards, regular searches are conducted, and every classroom is monitored by someone from the Ministry of Education. Lucio tries to watch out for the students he’s growing fond of while still juggling his fatherly responsibilities and processing his divorce.
Lucio’s relationship with his own father (played by Alfredo Castro) is warm, and loving, even though we never really know his father for who he is. Locally known as ‘The Chilean’, he’s currently a community leader, and his latest project is to build a community hall for the residents of the suburb. However, we never find out why he’s called The Chilean, or the real extent of his power; only that his influence with the mayor is considerable.
One of Lucio’s students, Dilan (played by Lucas Arrua) works at The Chilean’s new community hall but is forced into hiding after it’s discovered that he was the one to supply drugs to the school. Lucio and The Chilean float theories that it could either be El Perro, the local drug lord who’s looking to run for mayor, or the current mayor, Suarez. Hypothesizing that it could be Suarez who used schoolboys to sell drugs in an attempt to damage El Perros’ reputation, The Chilean is adamant that sticking with the current mayor is worth it — which begs the question of how much he’s willing to look past if it fits his agenda. However, it’s later revealed that Dilan was working with El Perro, who’s now out to remove Dilan entirely. The school is neutral ground, and the entire district is now in flux.
The movie builds on the relationships between Lucio and his students, as he goes from one who tries to maintain his distance, to deeply caring for his students, standing up for them, despite the school’s, and Ministry’s, wishes.
Throughout the movie, the threat of violence hangs in the air but is never seen — until Lucio, in an attempt to get Dilan out of the city, has his car shot at by members of the mafia. All’s well that ends well; Dilan is able to make it out, and Lucio presumably returns to the school and the community hall. Though no significant changes have been made (we don’t know if Dilan will make it in the future, and what happens to the school), that’s not what this is about. What matters is that a child’s mistake doesn’t condemn him to death. It’s about second chances and the ability to learn from your mistakes. We see Lucio actively learning from the kids he teaches. With The Chilean, we never know his past, only that he’s actively making changes now (including helping get Dilan out of the city).
Who knows, maybe Dilan will grow up to be like Lucio, or The Chilean — a respected community leader who’s willing to look past honest mistakes, to see the person for who they are — people trying to survive in a cruel world.