Teachable moments

'The Class' provides powerful, real-life lessons about student-teacher tensions ****

4 Stars)

March 06, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The Class ranks with the very best films ever made about teaching, and it's unlike any English or American film about teaching ever made.

This film from contemporary master Laurent Cantet (Heading South), about a French grammar instructor teaching a diverse group of 14- and 15-year-olds in a Paris school, depicts a mixture of instinct and process that allows a pedagogue to sustain genuine communication with his students while preserving his own sanity.

Jon Voight's Pat Conroy in the great American film Conrack swept up his students with his outsize personality and his poetic relationship to his subject matter. Francois Marin, played by real-life teacher Francois Begaudeau (the movie is based on his autobiographical book), relies solely on his observational gifts and powers of argument. He awakens his charges' minds and maintains an atmosphere of fairness through constant vigilance and flexible, intelligent response to their behavior and misbehavior.

The movie never leaves school grounds. Yet its multifaceted view of all its characters keeps a viewer hopped up and excited, ready for anything. Francois proves fallible, sometimes shockingly so, as when he calls a couple of taunting, irritating female students "skanks." He reacts immediately yet feebly to his own misstep, arguing that he meant they only acted like skanks. But his essential honesty soon rights him, and he continues to fight for an unrestricted vision of youthful possibilities - even those of the two girls who often act as his enemy.

He sparks the film's greatest tragedy when other teachers at a staff meeting prod him into calling one student "limited." The movie is about Francois' powers of compromise and the limits of compromise, too. He's neither omniscient nor sweepingly empathetic. And he doesn't feel that it's his job to bridge a generation gap. He insists that students meet him halfway.

One unstressed theme is how unknowable some adolescents are to adults. What makes the movie excitingly real, even when the action is excruciating, is director Cantet's grasp of the complex drama beneath the snarky or obstreperous surface of teenagers. The students are full of happy and unhappy surprises.

Made in a documentarylike style, with actual students enacting scenes they helped the filmmakers cook up in workshops, the film plants a half-dozen students and a handful of faculty firmly in your mind, without coercing you into considering them "leading characters." Only afterward do you realize how adeptly Cantet and his co-writers, Begaudeau and Robin Campillo, have developed the many facets of an annoyingly loud, hip schoolgirl who say she's ashamed of being French and hides her intelligence with brashness. Or a shy Chinese boy who feels his classmates should feel more shame. Or a black Muslim boy who can express himself only in photographs, though his mother disapproves of them.

Francois himself appears to have some of the loneliness of a long-distance runner. He's cordial with his peers but more intent on inspecting his lesson plans than on exchanging gossip or sharing a celebratory biscuit over the start of the new year.

You realize how intimate everyone's interchange becomes in this movie when the faculty learns that the Chinese boy's mother lacks proper papers and might be deported. Cantet renders to perfection the individuality of each staff member's reaction. A female teacher has brought a bottle of champagne to toast her own pregnancy. Instead she toasts her hopes for the protection of the mother and her desire that her own baby is as intelligent as the Chinese boy.

The film lives in one enthralling scene after another of Francois using the teaching of French grammar to rouse intelligence and promote understanding among the student population. He tries to turn every interruption and every nonacademic argument over soccer or pop culture and mores into an opportunity for discussion.

Yet because he doesn't delude himself into thinking he's a savior, the movie is bracing and unromantic. Although his approach is Socratic, the girl who is the biggest thorn in his side doesn't see the connection between Francois and the hero of her new favorite book, Plato's Republic. The triumph of The Class is that we do.

The Class

(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Francois Begaudeau. Directed by Laurent Cantet. Rated PG-13 for language. Time 128 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

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