The Class

December, 2008, Drama

It may surprise American audiences to learn that this examination of France’s efforts in multi-cultural public education has not only recently won The Palm d’Or at The Cannes Film Festival but that it will also be contending in Oscar’s best foreign language film category this February. Playing himself, author Francois Begaudeau recreates the experiences he encountered in a year of teaching a group of racially, religiously and ethnically mixed teens in a Parisian high school. As directed by Laurent Cantet, (Time Out) this thoughtful film explores the perils of trying to reach kids who don’t see much purpose in learning anything from a system too often inclined to value bureaucratic pedantry above the task of inspiring young intellects. Begaudeau comes across as bright and appealing while his students (all non-professional actors) covey the combustible aspects of adolescence with astonishing skill. But U.S. audiences, long versed in the classroom sub-genre that runs the gamut from Blackboard Jungle to Fast Times at Ridgemont High can be forgiven if they leave theaters saying “been there, done that”. 

Charged with teaching his kids proper French grammar in both written and verbal forms, Begaudeau parries with his students in a running dialogue designed to simultaneously inform them and keep a lid on their behavior.  They’re thoughtless, easily distracted, self-conscious, maddeningly self-centered and share no common language, race, religion, culture or class background.  He’s eager to teach, capable of using his skills in a running debate and genuinely interested in his students even as he’s engaged in dealing with them like a badly outnumbered lion-tamer. The resulting exchanges are often intense and unexpectedly insightful. 

The school’s faculty is comprised of teachers who are genuinely committed but also inclined to be officious when their authority and perks are challenged and they engage in a lot of depressingly academic pedantry while evaluating their students at the end of the school year and in a hearing during which one especially interesting but troublesome student gets expelled despite the dignified exhortations of his African-born mother.   

The favorable French reaction to this film may prove once again that seeing commercially successful films made in other countries may be one of the best ways of obtaining a glimpse into cultures not our own. The democracies of Western Europe have all experienced an influx of foreign born populations since WW II and the second and third generations of those immigrants now find themselves being processed through public school systems which for years dealt only with homogenous student populations predisposed to the notion that formal education was a valuable asset. Given the polyglot nature of American society, our public schools have been faced with this challenge for a far longer period of time and have thus seen it examined ad nausea in films, television programming and print media. The ground covered in this film has already been exhaustively tilled by Hollywood. 

The verdict? Fresh examination of a shopworn topic in the U.S. For a far more interesting example of French teaching techniques, get a C.D. of To Be And To Have and watch a brilliant Gallic teacher at work. 

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