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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Class' is a class act

February 9, 2009 | 12:44 pm

It's no secret that the L.A. public school system is pretty much a disaster--mismanaged, overcrowded, underfunded, crippled by a bloated bureaucracy, lacking in leadership and soon to be further undermined by another round of budget cuts sparked by Sacramento's inability to manage its own budget outlays. Of course, I could say pretty much the same thing about most public schools around the country. It's something of a national scandal in an era of globalization that we put so little energy and money into providing a worthy public education for our children.

It's such a sad, depressing story that, for years, Hollywood has refused to acknowledge it. If you look at the movies made in the past few decades about our schools, they are--with rare exceptions--uplifting dramas and escapist fantasies that have little to do with the grim realities of our crumbling public school system. Required to have a third act that reassures audiences that hope springs eternal, they are packed with idealistic teachers, feel-good nostrums and kids whose exterior brashness disguises a sweet-natured soul--in Hollywood movies, teenagers are the ultimate whores with a heart of gold. This holds true from "Blackboard Jungle" through "To Sir, With Love" to "Dead Poets Society," from "Mr. Holland's Opus" to "The Breakfast Club" and "The Emperor's Club," from "Music of the Heart" and "Stand and Deliver" to "Dangerous Minds" and "Mean Girls."   

TheclassThat's what makes "The Class," a terrific, tough-minded film from Laurent Cantet that is a leading contender for the best foreign-language film Oscar, such a revelation. A raucous, wholly unsentimental look at a class of largely immigrant middle schoolers in a gritty Parisian neighborhood, using real kids and a real teacher in the leading roles, it offers such a grimly realistic portrait of classroom chaos that many critics--while giving it rave reviews--have been confused about whether to describe it as a fiction, documentary or docudrama. (The film, which is playing here in L.A. and a dozen or so other cities in the U.S., is expected to be on roughly 100 screens in America by Oscar weekend.)

Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker wasn't sure what to make of "The Class" himself when he first saw the picture at a market screening last year in Cannes before it started racking up rave reviews and winning the festival's coveted Palme d'Or. "I remember walking out, blown away, for two different reasons," Barker recalls. "First off, I'd seen so many movies about teacher-student relationships in the classrooms, but I'd never seen anything as blunt and volatile and full of ricocheting energy as in this film. Secondly, after seeing the teacher in the film, I immediately thought, 'Who is this guy? He's going to be the new French movie star. He has the charisma of a movie star and the focus of a great actor.' And then it turns out that he's playing himself! He's a real teacher who wrote the book that the movie was based on."

One of the first things Barker did when he brought the film to America was to screen it for Joel Klein, an old friend who is the New York City schools chancellor. "He adored it," Barker says. "He recognized right away that 'The Class' was about the challenges every school system in America has in trying to deal with multiculturalism. The film may be set in France, but what we've found is that people from all sorts of different countries and cultures identify with what's going on in that story."

So why does "The Class" offer so much more of a compelling portrait of the tumult of today's school system than Hollywood films?

The most obvious difference between "The Class" and most Hollywood fare is that it was made in a country that holds education and academia in far higher esteem than in America--you don't see French politicians routinely bashing college professors or preventing junior high schools from teaching the theory of evolution, as happens all too often in America. Cantet's film was also made independently, so the filmmaker wasn't barraged with studio notes, asking him to insert inspirational moments or soften the insolence and anger of some of the key students in the film. There's no three-act structure, no obstacles to overcome, simply the drama inherent in a situation that pits a no-nonsense, doggedly focused teacher against a scrum of embattled teenagers, most from immigrant families, who take it as a challenge to see if they can provoke confrontation and undermine the teacher's authority.

Instead of hiring a professional screenwriter to smooth over the rough edges, Cantet went to Francois Begaudeau, who'd written a book documenting a year from his life as a classroom teacher. The two men didn't just write the film together; they spent a year in a real Parisian school, running weekly workshops, hanging out with roughly 50 students, doing improvisations, then grafting some of the kids' stories into the storyline of the film. Most of the students who participated in the workshops ended up playing the characters we see in the film, using their real first names, instead of character names. In the film, Begaudeau plays Francois Marin.

The film itself is shot so much like a documentary that everyone appears confused about how much was scripted and how much was improvised. A number of critics, including Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, have described the film as unscripted. Sony's Barker insists it was totally scripted. In an interview he gave last year, which captures the fascination with the complexities of language that he brings to the film, Cantet said, "The adolescents never had a script in hand. We noticed that when they improvised according to requested situations, they were able to come up with their own dialogue---certain exchanges, certain expressions, which Francois had in his book--as if it were a matter of archetypes of language and their preoccupations."

What especially hits home is the film's barbed, evocative portrayal of its protagonists. The film's "star" student (perhaps a better term would be "antihero") is Esmeralda, a bright but incorrigible gadfly who takes pleasure in provoking confrontation and undermining Marin's authority at every turn. When I screened "The Class" recently for a group of friends, after the film was over, one middle-aged man jumped out of his seat, his fists balled up, saying he wanted to slug Esmeralda in the kisser. On the other hand, the film offers a heart-wrenching portrait of Souleymane, a proud but defiant African immigrant who provokes a classroom confrontation that leads to a dramatic hearing before the school's disciplinary committee. Petrified that Souleymane's father will send him back home to Mali, Souleymane's mother makes a desperate plea for forgiveness. Since the mother speaks no French, it is Souleymane who has to swallow his pride and translate her contrite apologies, transforming the whole sequence into a ritual humiliation for all concerned, from student to parent to teachers.

The film is loaded with similar moments of revelation, especially when the surly students are asked to write--and then read aloud--portraits of themselves, which are full of idealistic aspiration, raw emotion and unlikely biographical surprises. "The Class" doesn't pull its punches. After seeing the often shell-shocked teachers, the often unacknowledged rigidity of the French school system and the simmering resentments of the immigrant kids, we aren't left with a vast reservoir of Obama-like hope.

But at least the film is an honest attempt to confront a key fracture occurring in French society as it wrestles with the impact of a massive influx of new immigrants from widely different cultures. In America, we are struggling to confront a similar dilemma. But so far the battle is being fought in Washington and in our border cities. Hollywood, which has found time to make dozens of films about the Holocaust and the war in Iraq, has largely been silent about something much closer to home--the mess in our public schools.

Photo from "The Class" by Pierre Milon / Sony Pictures Classics

 

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