Friday, February 27, 2009

Film review: ‘The Class,’ France's Oscar nominee came up short, but is a class act

Francois Begaudeau in ‘The Class.’

By Hap Erstein

Just days after the Academy Awards, a film called The Class arrives, and this little Oscar-worthy gem is a class act. France’s foreign language film nominee, it is a perfect antidote to all those wildly inspiring Hollywood movies where a cares-too-much teacher breaks through to an unruly group of students, turning them into nuclear physicists or at least master debaters in two
hours’ time.

The Class has a more realistic view of public education, in part because it is based on the experiences of an actual teacher, Francois Begaudeau, who wrote a book on the barriers to education, and in part because of director Laurent Cantet (Time Out) and his unsentimental, documentary-like approach to this material.

Adding to the film’s degree of difficulty, Cantet chose to use non-actors, including Begaudeau as the teacher through whose eyes we see the daily challenge and a remarkable multi-cultural group of teens who helped develop the script through role-playing and improvisation.

Each class is a struggle for Francois, to maintain order, keep his students’ attention and, if there is any time or patience after that, to try to cram a little knowledge about French grammar into their heads. It is a film about the odds against Francois’ success when there are so many other things going on in his students’ heads and, as would surely be the case, he fails to reach more of his class than he is able to crack.

The screenplay, by Begaudeau and Cantet, gets beyond stereotypes to vivid characterizations that viewers are bound to find themselves rooting for, if not necessarily liking. There’s a belligerent Arab girl (Esmerelda Ouertani), a brooding tough from Mali (Franck Keita), and a shy, but intelligent Asian kid (Wey Huang), to name a few.

Cantet keeps most of the action in Francois’ classroom, though we also get occasional glimpses inside the teacher’s lounge, at a staff meeting where priorities are out of whack and at the inevitable parent conferences, which often need the intervention of interpreters.
There are plenty of confrontation in The Class, but no villains. The teachers can be seen as heroes, if only for their efforts, while accepting that each has his own flaws which become barriers to success.

The film in rooted in its impoverished Parisian arrondisement, but the problems it illustrates are surely universal. The Class did not win the Oscar, but it did walk off with the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Too gritty and pessimistic to become widely popular, at least it has received mainstream distribution from Sony Pictures Classics and should spark discussion wherever it plays.

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