Top of the class

French film about an inner city Paris school show teachers just as they are

The Class examines an inner-city Paris school where the teachers are faced with a group of unruly students.

From Blackboard Jungle to To Sir, With Love to Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers the “idealistic teacher thrown into the inner-city classroom full of hardened sarcastic kids” story is probably one of the most overdone tales in cinematic history. So tired is this type of story that it seems only the French could redeem it.

They have.

In The Class, director Laurent Cantet and writer/star François Bégaudeau, examine an inner-city Paris school where the teachers, for all their earnest labours, are faced with a group of students so unruly that even the best of them feel crushed under the weight of their uphill battle.

Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, the film has a constant air of realism which adds a sense of tension and discomfort to moments that are more than likely everyday occurrences in the type of classrooms this film mimics.
Realism is paramount to this movie; you won’t find any Michelle Pfeiffer-types getting duded up in a leather jacket set to the sounds of Coolio. Nor is there a moment of revelation wherein the tireless teacher finally breaks through to that problem student who just can’t see his own potential.

And although at one point it seems as though the movie is going to tailspin into a story about the tough girl who can’t read, the film never gives in to the kinds of clichéd tropes so common to this type of movie.
The film is largely episodic, and its biggest conflict has to do with the expulsion of a disrespectful and unruly student. There are no gang showdowns, elicit drug deals or intense parental confrontations; the whole thing really plays out in the way a teacher would view a year of school.

Questions of inequality, injustice and the relevance of a traditional school system in such a multicultural society are addressed, but the film’s subtlety allows them to float in gently which allows the viewer to make an independent decision rather than having one hoisted upon them in a didactic sort of way; not unlike the way that proverbial great high school teacher we all had taught us to love Shakespeare, or the Pythagorean Theorem, or [insert your favourite subject here].
It is refreshing to see that a segment of society as important as teachers can be handled in a serious way that doesn’t valorize or vilify them, but simply presents them as the tireless, conflicted and underappreciated people they are.

Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)

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