Wednesday, February 18, 2009

“The Class”

We’ve all seem films like Stand and Deliver in which a talented teacher takes charge of a classroom full of juvenile delinquents and turns them into Rhodes Scholars, or at the very least, convinces them that learning can be fun and also useful. This transformation comes about as a result of the teacher’s sincerity, grit, and sheer moxie, and watching it take place can be both rousing and inspiring. It gives us the impression that teaching is a noble profession (which it is) and that deep down inside even the most sociopathic teenager there lies a thoughtful, considerate being who has simply never gotten the right kind of stimulation (which might also be true in many cases).

The new French drama The Class is not that kind of film. Rather, it’s the story of one year in the life of a high school French teacher in a rough multi-cultural section of Paris. A few of his students are troublesome, though most are not. Yet it’s the cut-ups (as we used to call them) who get most of the attention, both in the classroom and the film. We also spend some time with the teacher in the break-room with his colleagues, at disciplinary committee meetings, and at parent-teacher conferences. The focus occasionally shifts to the kids during their free time on the courtyard playground between classes, but there are no back-stories about home life and no subplots about drugs or teen romance. In a nutshell, the question the film poses is this: “How do you teach the past subjunctive to kids who will probably never use it again ‘til the day they die?” As the story develops the question becomes, “How do you discipline kids who are fowling the classroom atmosphere without condemning them to a life of illiteracy and poverty?”

Those may not sound like interesting premises for a film, but let me assure you, very little time is taken up with grammar per se. What makes the film so interesting is the fact that the repartee between teacher and students sounds like it’s actually taking place. It’s always teetering on the edge of disrespect, while very rarely tumbling over the edge. The kids are often annoying and rude, but their teacher has a knack for discerning the kernel of good sense in what they’ve just thrown his way and feeding it back to them in a different, and perhaps more edifying, form.

We must credit the director, Laurent Cantet, therefore, for keeping the focus squarely on the student-teacher dialectic. But the greater credit goes to François Begaudeau, who wrote the autobiographical novel on which the film is based and also plays the main character. But wait a minute! The dialogue would have little force were it not for the energy and creativity displayed by the bored and irascible students. Kudos to them as well! (The idea that the film might have been following a script seems difficult to believe.)

In the end The Class is not a rousing or inspiring film. Some of the students learn and grow; others don’t. No one would call it entertaining, I think. In fact, many of the scenes are grueling to watch. But we leave the theater with the feeling that we’ve spent some time with that thing called “truth.” And that’s a good feeling. It’s kind of like art.

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