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Dramatic Sparks Fly in The Class

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 14, 2009
Dramatic Sparks Fly in <i>The Class</i>

DVD Release Date:  August 11, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 19, 2008 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time: 128 min.
Director:  Laurent Cantet
Actors:  Francois Begaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Franck Keita, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaidja Rachedi, Esmeralda Oeurtani, Wey Huang, Juliette Demaille, Dalla Doucoure, Arthur Fogel, Damien Gomes

The previews for The Class, a foreign drama about a teacher trying to educate a diverse group of disinterested students, make you think that the film is a French-language version of the formulaic American teacher drama.

Remember Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, or more recently, Freedom Writers? Sure, those films have their merits, but by now we’ve all seen too many stories in which overmatched, outgunned teachers end up inspiring their slacker students. Dressing up that plot with subtitles can’t make any difference.

The Class, which won the top award at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, dares to be different, mixing teacher-student interaction throughout the course of one year at a school in Paris with behind-the-scenes political maneuvers and struggles. Powered by long, uninterrupted sequences of back-and-forth dialogue between French teacher Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) and his students, The Class shines a light on the challenges and rewards of teaching but offers no easy solutions for the systemic problems that plague the education system both in the United States and abroad.

Marin is dedicated, but he’s far from flawless in his approach to his profession. Director Laurent Cantet told Variety, “The teacher in Dead Poets Society never makes a mistake. We wanted to show a teacher who is always improvising, always negotiating and always making mistakes.”

Begaudeau, who wrote the screenplay for the film, plays Marin. He’s been at the school four years, but each day starts the same, with Marin taking several minutes to quiet the students before engaging them in the day’s lesson. The diverse students—all of whom were actual students at Francoise Dolto Junior High at the time the movie was cast—are mostly immigrants, include Wei (Wey Huang), an Asian who has difficulty speaking and writing French; Souleyman (Franck Keita), who frequently disrupts the class and challenges the patience of Marin; and Sandra (Esmeralda Oeurtani), who reads Plato but can’t be bothered with Marin’s attempts to engage her in class discussion.

Yet, Marin manages to find ways to draw out the students, prodding them for answers to his questions and sometimes allowing the students to dictate the direction of the day’s lesson. It’s a give-and-take that has worked for Marin, although not all of his colleagues share his flexible approach to teaching.

The school’s teachers debate how much leeway to allow in their lesson plans, and whether a new penalty point system might result in better behavior among the students. Marin is the softer voice in the discussion, stressing flexibility where others want rigid adherence, and mercy where others seek a student’s expulsion.

The understanding between the teachers is not shared by the students, who struggle to interpret Marin and his lessons correctly. This language barrier is one of the movie’s main themes. Marin helps his students unlock the meaning of words they don’t understand, and when Marin hosts parent/teacher conferences, one mother brings her son to interpret Marin’s comments, and her responses. Later, two of Marin’s pupils listen in as the school’s teachers debate expulsion of a disruptive classmate, but their questionable interpretation of Marin’s comments lead to a confrontation that imperils the teacher as well as his troubled pupil.

At other times, the teacher and his class engage in back-and-forth dialogue that, in context with Cantet’s use of handheld cameras, feels electric, as Marin steers, cajoles and pushed the conversation.

The great strength of The Class is in allowing its audience to identify with both Marin and his students, who, despite their insolence, are not always unjustified in their negativity. When Marin provides an opening for them to exploit, they do so, although the school’s other teachers, who struggle to keep their anger contained to the teachers’ lounge, still hold an upper hand in that debate.

What is fair in disciplinary matters for students, and for teachers? Do certain behaviors demand punishment, regardless of the consequences that might result later? The Class explores these questions, without settling on easy answers. Marin, although not portrayed as a religious man, shows a dedication to his profession that echoes Scripture: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The Class is a stimulating, and, at times, gripping look at educators doing their best, and at students who challenge them to be better.

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  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A champagne toast; smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some foul language in subtitles; racial epithets.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None, but an accusation that someone is a pedophile, and a rebuffed accusation that Marin is homosexual; a student reads another student’s paper and claims it includes thoughts about love-making, although the student denies it; a teacher says there’s no shame in liking female cleavage; a boy recites what he learned about human reproduction.
  • Violence:  Marin kicks a desk in frustration; a classroom argument results in a cut eyebrow.