Thursday, March 12, 2009
Real life French teacher François Bégaudeau plays an on-screen version of himself in "The Class/Entre les murs" (held over at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters), based on his book about his own classroom experiences. We discussed the film on last month's Film Club but I also wanted to highlight the film on my blog. Director Laurent Cantet (who also made "Time Out" and "Heading South") collaborated with Bégaudeau to bring his story to the screen. The ressult is a documentary style portrait of teaching in a contemporary French school. Cantet chose to shoot multiple improvised takes using real students and multiple cameras to chronicle what happens in a single classroom of middle school age students. The film was nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and took home the Palm D'Or at Cannes. While there were definitely more worthy films to pick as the best of the year, the Cannes Award is telling because it reflects France's need and maybe desire to try and come to terms with its increasing multi-ethnice make-up, a fact that's been harder to ignore inlight of recent riots and protests.
Bégaudeau plays François Marin, a determined and dedicated teacher coping with an ethnically diverse classroom (students are African, Caribbean, Moroccan, Turkish, Chinese and white). He's by no means the perfect, idealized and idealistic teacher of such Hollywood films as "To Sir With Love," "Stand and Deliver" or "Conrack." He's much more human and fallible and therefore more real. He desperately wants to engage and challenge his students, sometimes he tries to be their friend, sometimes he's forced to discipline them, but his classroom always seems lively.
What makes this film different from most other films about teachers is that it almost all takes place inside the classroom, and focuses on the classroom as a whole, and the dynamics of that environment, rather than any one person. More than any other film, it captures what it feels like to be in a contemporary classroom and to try to get through to kids some of whom want to learn, some of whom see no point in being there, and others who face greater challenges outside the classroom.
"The Class" (rated PG-13 for language) offers a compelling and naturalistic look at contemporary teaching and the challenges of a diverse classroom. The film eschews big Hollywood moments and instead goes for quiet telling ones. Whether it's a rebellious girl who casually reveals that she read Plato just because her sister had a book laying around (revealing the unexpected ways childhood curiosity can occur) or a student who matter of factly informs Marin that she learned nothing in his class (she doesn't seem angry or accusing but rather suddenly concerned about what that means for her future). "The Class" is about small truths rather than big drama, and in that respect it is refreshing and engaging.
Companion viewing: "To Be and to Have," "Stand and Deliver," "To Sir With Love," "Conrack," "Up the Down Staircase," "Freedom Writers," "The Blackboard Jungle"