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Film Review

The Class

Unless we teach, does any one of us really know what goes on in a high school classroom today, either here in California or in France? Few films have ever shown the reality of a classroom, then or now. But with The Class, director Laurent Cantet has taken a book by Francois Begaudeau, titled Entre les Murs, literally "Between the Walls", that was a best seller in France, and has created something wonderful. It is an account of Begaudeau's year of teaching in a Parisian public high school in a working class neighborhood. The school is a handsome contemporary, well cared for, urban building. The students are very diverse, many have immigrant parents who don't speak French well, and as often the case with immigrant parents, the child needs to translate for the parents. They are at that transition age of 13 or 14, attempting to become independent, wanting to appear cool, and often sassy. The teacher/author, Francois Begaudeau, plays himself as Mr. Marin. He is clearly a good teacher, concerned for his kids, compassionate, tough when needed, but skeptical that many will make it. There are no actors here; his students play themselves, and the various teachers, themselves. Yet with no actors, no music, and a documentary like form, Cantet has created a masterpiece of a film.

Every skin color is in their room: Esmeralda, of Arab extraction; Wei, Chinese; Louise, Caucasian French; Nassim, from Morocco, and Souleymane, from Mali, and a dozen more, equally diverse. Many immediately challenge him by questioning why they have to spend so much time learning the future imperfect tense or for using Bill as a name rather than ethnic name in a sentence written on the blackboard. They are at times maddening, full of contradictions, sometimes angry, but Mr. Marin tries his best to draw them out. Then, in a burst of impatience, he says that several of the girls are acting like "skanks". Which has an explosive effect on the class, whose understanding of that word and how used is different than that of their teacher, and leads to a crisis. We see the teachers in their lounge, discussing various students, some sympathetic and others disliking their students, and even a breakdown of one teacher. And ultimately voting collectively for grades, something not done in this country. As here, parents come in to talk to the teacher. In one particularly memorable scene, the mother of Souleymane, although unable to speak French, has more dignity than any of the teachers or principal. But her son has to translate for her, a job he does very grudgingly as he is embarrassed by her inability to speak French. In another, very low key scene, Esmeralda, an indifferent and challenging student, stuns the teacher, and us, by casually mentioning that she read a certain book of her older sister. Wait until you hear the name of the book.

Cantet used three digital video cameras, filming for a year, to capture the story. He uses extreme closeups and other techniques that create a film nearly indistinguishable from a documentary. This is a wonderful, tremendously moving film, that comes as close to truth as ever possible with a camera. No one seeing this film will forget it. The Class will surely win the best foreign film award next week, and should. Playing at the Clay.

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