“The Class” is up for an Oscar for best foreign-language film this weekend — but there’s nothing foreign feeling about it.
The French docudrama follows one teacher and his students over the course of a single school year in inner-city Paris, but the messy problems these adversaries try to muddle their way through are all too universal.
The film looks and feels incredibly real. It looks that way because it was filmed in high definition with three cameras in an actual Paris school, not a soundstage. It feels that way because it’s based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau, who also makes his film debut as the teacher Francois alongside an assortment of Parisian students who also are nonprofessional actors.
The French title of the film is “Entre les murs (“Between the Walls”) — and we don’t see much outside of them. Next to nothing of the teacher’s or students’ personal lives is shown, though what happens at home comes to bear very importantly on what happens at school. The class is a racially mixed group, with Africans, Arabs and Asians put in a room to learn to become good French citizens.
These alternately childish and grown-up 14- and 15-year-olds can’t see the point of trying to fit into a society that they don’t feel welcomes them. Neither can they imagine why they should spend hours learning the tiny details of the imperfect subjunctive tense when they’re not likely ever to need the knowledge in their future careers in, say, the service industry. (Yet these immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants seem so French when they complain that a subject is terribly “bourgeois.”)
Some teachers have gotten used to the challenge of teaching in the 21st-century classroom. “Nice, nice, not nice, not nice at all,” one veteran says to a newbie, going down a class list. Others will be broken by their students before the year is out. Francois is still an idealist, but his personal connection to his students could prove to be his downfall.
The best thing about “The Class” is its characters. These are familiar archetypes, but they transcend cliches because they’re performed with such truth. Francois is the familiar teacher who wants to make a difference, but he’s no angel. “Austria could vanish, no one would notice,” he tells his students during one lesson. Standouts among the students include Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), a particularly tough cookie who’s constantly on Francois’ case, and Souleymane (Franck Keita), a vulnerable but violent kid from Mali.
“The Class” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and there’s no question this exploration of race, class, national identity and education is an important film. Whether it’s a great work of art is another question. It doesn’t have much in the way of a narrative arc, which makes its realism feel ultimately unsatisfying. There are lessons to be learned in “The Class,” but its makers aren’t clear enough on what they are.
TITLE: “The Class” (“Entre les murs”)
RATING: PG-13 (Language)
CREDITS: Directed by Laurent Cantet. Written by Francois Begaudeau, Robin Campillo and Mr. Cantet, based on the book by Mr. Begaudeau.
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
WEB SITE: sonyclassics.com/theclass
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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