Thursday, August 13, 2009

DVD Views: The Class

The Class ****
Directed by: Laurent Cantet.
Written By: François Bégaudeau & Robin Campillo & Laurent Cantet based on the book by François Bégaudeau.
Starring: François Bégaudeau (François Marin), Nassim Amrabt (Nassim), Laura Baquela (Laura), Cherif Bounaïdja Rachedi (Cherif), Juliette Demaille (Juliette), Dalla Doucoure (Dalla), Arthur Fogel (Arthur), Damien Gomes (Damien), Louise Grinberg (Louise), Qifei Huang (Qifei), Wei Huang (Wei), Franck Keita (Souleymane), Henriette Kasaruhanda (Henriette), Agdame Malembo-Emene (Agdame), Rabah Nait Oufella (Rabah), Carl Nanor (Carl), Esmerelda Ourtani (Sandra), Burak Ozylimaz (Burak), Eva Paradiso (Eva), Rachel Regulier (Khoumba), Angelica Sociano (Angelica), Samantha Soupirot (Samantha), Boubacar Toure (Boubacar), Justine Wu (Justine).

The Class is a rarity for a movie about teaching and schools. It is a movie that doesn’t paint the teacher as a saint who rides in on a white horse and inspires his previously hopeless students to do great things, just because he believes in them. It does not paint the kids as inherently great, with just a lousy hand dealt to them in life. Instead, director Laurent Cantent and his cast do something altogether more interesting – they allow the characters to be real people and then just sits back and observes them over the course of a school year. There are triumphs and setbacks, joy and frustration, and then the school year ends only so it can start up the very next year.

Cantet focuses his camera on one teacher in one class, with almost the entire movie taking place within the walls of the school (the French title of the movie, Entre Les Murs, translates to Between the Walls). The teacher is Francois Marin, played by Francois Begaudeau, a real teacher who wrote an autobiographical novel about his experiences, that he then co-wrote the screenplay for, and is now essentially playing a thinly veiled version of himself. He teaches French, but his class doesn’t seem all that interested. For the most part, the students are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from the Middle East, Asia and Africa – none of them identify themselves as French, so they don’t see the need to learn the intricacies of the language (the boys in the class make fun of the one guy who when asked what his “National” team in soccer is, he responds, “France”). All the talk about imperatives and conjugation mean nothing to them – no one speaks like that, so why bother? And yet, these kids are not all troublemakers, and they are not stupid. They are insightful and intelligent, and simply doing what teenagers around the world do – rebel against authority and try to find their own place in the world.

Begaudeau makes for the most believable teacher I have ever seen in a movie. He tries to relate to the kids, tries to be not just their teacher, but their friend. But he cannot be that, and eventually he and the students come to realize this – even if it is a painful realization for at least one student. Mr. Marin becomes frustrated, not just because of the students, but because of the endless conflicts with other teachers, with administrators, with parents. When his most troublesome student, Souleymane, storms out of the classroom, accidentally hitting another student, he may well be expelled, but Begaudeau lobbies for understanding, but none is to be found. Even though this student may end up being sent back to Mali because of the incident, everyone seems to think that it isn’t their problem. Their job is to do the best they can for the most number of students they can. The rest is out of their control.

I may have made this movie sound dry or boring. It’s true that the movie is essentially a series of classroom scenes, where everyone literally just sits around and talk, but the movie is never boring. Cantet’s film has the feel of a documentary, just sitting back and observing the characters on display, and it never hits a false note. The movie hums with an everyday reality that so few movies are able to achieve. This is one of the more subtlety powerful films of the year.

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