The Class (2008) / Drama
aka Entre les murs
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language
Running time: 128 min.
Cast: Francois Begaudeau, Frank Kelta, Esmeralda Ouertani, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Chery Boundaija Rachedi. Juliette Demaille
Director: Laurent Cantet
Screenplay: Francois Begaudeau (based on his book)
Review published March 15, 2009
Winner of the vaunted Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, The Class is a slice of life film relating the trials and tribulations of a teacher over the course of one year in one of the lower class schools in Paris, Francoise Dolto Junior High. The 14-year-old students are amateur actors cast right from the real-life school, though that is a point in the film's favor. It is one of the more realistic depictions of how students can behave in a classroom, almost treading into documentary territory, though a fictionalized work based on lead actor Francois Begaudeau's autobiographical book, which he adapted into the screenplay.
The kids are a challenge for the teacher, whose backgrounds are widely varied and their brash demeanor sometimes disrespectful. Francois is a good teacher, more caring than some of his brethren in trying to reach out to his students, though there are miscommunications between teacher and students, and his agitation does cause him to cross the line of proper conduct as the tensions begin to flare.
The Class is somewhat on the long side for a film of its ilk, and for those who are used to Hollywood treatments, not structured with a defined plot. It isn't without eventful moments -- the bulk of the film's final third deals with Francois' dealing with his students after an altercation with one of them that may lead to the young lad's expulsion, and the rift it causes between him and the class he has tried to educate. Though Francois can be an inspiration, he is flawed and human, and there are some students he seems to have a difficult time turning around.
Much of the film deals with the humdrum daily interactions between teacher and students, trying to get them to learn how to speak proper French, which they resist, as no one they know speaks in such a fashion. The students often use slang, which Francois diligently tries to curb, though his attempt to speak using one of the slang words they might use (he tells two female students they are acting like 'skanks,' misinterpreting the word as meaning giggling and disrespectful) ends up being the catalyst for his near demise in currying their favor. More insights occur in the teachers lounge, where there is at least one despondent instructor bemoaning the savages that he can't seem to get to behave. The others can easily commiserate, though they all vary in how they deal with the students. Some are more concerned with the cost of coffee than in setting the table for learning for the youth of the area.
The acting is amazing in that it never feels like there is any acting involved. It feels every bit like a documentary in its delivery, and plays far more like reality than practically any so-called reality show on television. Part of this is because the scope is so small, without much sensationalism. Hollywood would probably have stuck in a school shooting or some sort of transformative turn of events for the instructor. Not so here, as we see that Francois does change, but not necessarily for the better, or for the worse, through his interactions with his students for the 55 minutes a day they are in his care. The other part is director Cantet's (Time Out, Heading South) deliberate slowing down of the film to include some very mundane moments. This isn't a highlight reel showing only moments of complete importance to the story. Instead, we see many aspects of the classroom to show that it isn't always an event a minute. There are rote exercises to perform and lessons to learn that may not sparkle with excitement for your average 14-year-old.
Some may love the film for its insights, others will wonder what the point is. However, it does increase the awareness of the difficulties and challenges faced by teachers on a daily basis in dealing with students, parents and their fellow instructors. It really does offer a fly-on-the-wall experience as to how it must feel to be a teacher in that environment, which is amazing considering it isn't a straight doc. The Class is interesting and educational in many respects --just like we felt when we were in school, we wonder what the point of it is, but at the end of it, we did manage to a little more enriched at the end than we had been going in.
©2009 Vince Leo