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Radical ★★★★★ and The Teacher Who Promised the Sea ★★★★★

Two unmissable films on hardship, hope, and childhood
ABR Arts 17 June 2024

Radical ★★★★★ and The Teacher Who Promised the Sea ★★★★★

Two unmissable films on hardship, hope, and childhood
ABR Arts 17 June 2024
Radical (photograph by Mateo Londono/ Madman Entertainment)
Radical (photograph by Mateo Londono/ Madman Entertainment)

How to start writing about two films based on polarities – life and death, past and future, childhood and adulthood, loss and hope – that grip your stomach, squeeze your heart, and make you both weep and laugh? I’ll start from a quote by Albert Einstein: ‘The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.’

This quote appears at the end of Radical (2023), a film by American director and screenwriter Christopher Zalla, and winner of the Sundance Film Favourite Award. The film, which screened during the 2023 Spanish Film Festival, is in cinemas now. Featuring a passionate performance by Eugenio Derbez, Radical is the inspiring true story of teacher Sergio Juárez, who, in 2011, transformed the lives of students at the struggling José Urbina López Elementary School in Matamoros, a Mexican border town afflicted by gunfights, corruption, and neglect. The school lacks educational resources such as encyclopedias and computers, and students suffer from some of the worst academic scores in all of Mexico. Despite the bleak environment where children are accustomed to hardship and adults have lost hope, Sergio fights for their future by introducing a radical new educational approach to spark curiosity and unlock their potential.

The Teacher Who Promised the Sea croppedThe Teacher Who Promised the Sea (courtesy of Palace Films)

El Maestro que Prometió el Mar (The Teacher Who Promised the Sea, 2024) by award-winning Spanish director and screenwriter Patricia Font, is part of the 2024 Spanish Film Festival. Like Radical, this gem is based on the true story of an idealist and enthusiastic teacher who resists a hostile environment to make his pupils discover and express their full potential. Antonio Benaiges (a stellar Enric Auquera) is a teacher from Tarragona, a Catalan town by the sea, who is assigned to the school in Bañuelos de Bureba, a remote and poor village in Burgos, in the region of Castilla y León. It is 1935, the Spanish Civil War is looming, and the few children who attend the primary school are used to being taught by the local priest in a strict and traditional way, leaving no room for them to be children. ‘They say school helps us to be adults,’ Antonio tells Charo, his housekeeper and ally, ‘but in my opinion, my pupils have to be children first.’ Embracing the educational approach developed by French educational reformer Célestin Freinet, Antonio brings magic to class: a printing press enabling students to create a series of notebooks through drawings and writings. These small publications capture the children’s perspectives on the world, covering topics such as family, friendships, and the village. In this way, the children’s individual talents are on display. Josefina (Alba Hermoso), daughter of the small-minded mayor, draws wonderfully; and Eugenio (Nicolás Calvo) is the best at reading, despite an illiterate father who keeps him away from school in order to make him work. (Antonio rightly foresees a future related to books, and Eugenio will indeed go on to become a librarian.)

In 1936, Antonio encourages the children to imagine and describe the sea, which they have never seen. The result is a notebook titled The Sea: The Perspective of Children Who Have Never Seen It. Antonio promises to take them to the sea that summer. Antonio’s story interweaves with that of Ariadna (Laia Costa), a contemporary fictional character. She goes to Burgos in search of the remains of her great-grandfather, who disappeared during the war. The film opens with a panoramic view of mass graves, surrounded by people searching for their missing relatives, who were buried anonymously. The dead rest below the earth and the living swarm upon it, in striking contrast with the pregnant archaeologist (Alba Guilera) who leads the operation, as if carrying the future in her womb. Ariadna has promised her ill grandfather that she will find his own father, who disappeared during the Civil War. We learn about Antonio and his pupils’ story through her journey. This is also a film revolving around memory, both the loss of it and the importance of maintaining it.

As with Antonio’s students, Sergio’s sixth graders are used to an education based on discipline and passive learning, surrounded by adults whose only goal is survival. Sergio wins his students’ trust with an unconventional teaching method based on solving problems through creativity and embodiment. To foster mathematical thinking, for example, Sergio reimagines the classroom by flipping all the desks upside down and using them to symbolically represent six lifeboats floating on the ocean. But there are only twenty-three places: how will they all fit? This leads to further discussions and practical experiments in physics (matter density and the ability of an object to float) and ethics (how do we decide who to let on board and who not?). Sergio encourages his pupils to think independently and to risk making mistakes. Gradually, they develop confidence and realise potential beyond the limitations of their impoverished backgrounds. There is Paloma (Jennifer Trejo), the mathematical genius and aspirant astronaut, who lives with her ill father in a shack surrounded by a mountain of rubbish, where she finds pieces to assemble a telescope and look at the US space station across the border. She will make headlines by breaking a national record for her standardised test scores. Then there is Lupe (Mia Fernanda Solis), the twelve-year-old carer of her three younger siblings. Lupe is determined to go to university and study philosophy. Thanks to Sergio, troubled Nico (Danilo Guardiola) falls in love with school and manages to stay away from the cartel gang for which his brother works. As the positive results become evident, even the sceptical school principal Chucho (Daniel Haddad) begins to support Sergio.

Radical (photograph by Mateo Londono/ Madman Entertainment) Radical (photograph by Mateo Londono/ Madman Entertainment)

There are no heroes without loss, and the two teachers are no exceptions. During the ensuing Spanish Civil War, local families and authorities label Antonio’s ideas and modus operandi ‘communist’ and ‘atheist’, and thus dangerous. Sergio, already disliked by his colleagues, eventually runs foul of a corrupt administrator who does not approve of his pedagogical methods. His pupils’ aspirations are likewise sidelined by their own families, who accuse Sergio of teaching them ‘what they can’t be’.

Although taking place in different countries and centuries, both these films show that learning is the only way that children can conquer their future. This is why regimes of violence, whether fascist or criminal, fear innovative education and try to thwart it. Despite this, Radical and The Teacher Who Promised the Sea highlight the profound impact of educators’ dedication to fostering hope and a brighter future for their students, no matter how severe their circumstances.


Radical (Madman) and The Teacher Who Promised the Sea (HSBC Spanish Film Festival) are on national release.

Comment (1)

  • I really loved ‘The Teacher Who Promised the Sea’. It makes me want to learn more about the Spanish Civil War.
    There are so many layers of meaning: Antonio knows all the personalities of his pupils (their strengths & weaknesses), he is a superb & inspiring teacher; the story encompasses three generations.
    It is a tragedy but we learn a lot along the way as the main character Antonio would have liked.
    The photography is beautiful.
    I wondered whether Carlos’s granddaughter (when she became overwhelmed on her journey home) may have pulled her car over on the highway at the exact spot where her great-grandfather had been killed 70 years before?
    Posted by Meredith langford
    30 June 2024

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