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'The Class' Offers Lessons In Cultural Identity


The French film, "The Class," has opened in the U.S. In May, it won the top prize at the CAN Film Festival, and now it's nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language feature. "The Class" is a semi-improvised look inside a high school in a diverse working-class Paris neighborhood. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The classroom scenes in Laurent Cantet's remarkable film, "The Class," feel as if they're happening in real time. They're not. They don't last 50 minutes, but in movie time they go on long enough to slow down your narrative expectations and make you feel how fraught the classroom dynamic can be, how teaching can be a high-wire act, a struggle for power, an endless series of negotiations.

This is not the high school of sitcoms or Hollywood films. The scenes have the rawness of a documentary. The film is based on a memoir by Francois Begaudeau, who taught high school in an impoverished Paris neighborhood to multi-racial students, many of them children of African and Asian immigrants who could barely speak French.

Begaudeau plays - very convincingly - a version of himself. And in the first scene, it's the beginning of the year, and he greets his fellow teachers at orientation. One teacher scans a new colleague student list. This one is trouble, he says. This one is bad. This one's nice. This one, watch out for. Then they all take a deep breath and enter the arena.

The teens playing Begaudeau's students are non-actors. Their scene's partly improvised, and at times it seems as if they're trying to throw Begaudeau off his game for real. He writes on the blackboard, and a student makes him stop and define a word, half out of genuine curiosity, half out of insolence. The trim, buoyant Begaudeau is an idealist, and instead of expressing annoyance, he patiently answers questions and then tugs his pupils back to the lesson at hand.

When he finally does get a rhythm going, an especially surly student interrupts to ask if it's true what they say in the yard, that Begaudeau likes men. And so, the teacher has to set aside his plan and say, first, what would be wrong with that? And then, no, it isn't true. And by then, the lesson has been derailed and there are snickers all around.

When he asserts his authority, some of the teens pipe up that he's a white male from a more prosperous class, and he can't possibly relate to their perspectives. It's no wonder that when Begaudeau goes back to the faculty lounge several of his colleagues appear shell-shocked. These kids don't deserve to be educated, they say. They're like animals in heat. Let them rot in their dead-end, low-class jobs.

"The Class" is shaped as a test of Begaudeau's liberalism. How long can he maintain his equilibrium? He tells his colleagues that it's the job of the teacher to bring kids out. And the amazing thing is that he does. What finally rouses most of his students is an assignment to write self-portraits. Suddenly, outpour their hopes and fears about their bodies, their families, their struggles to adapt in a country that hasn't made them welcome. For a brief spell, they seem younger, more open and ready to learn.

But just when you're getting a warm, Utopian feeling, something bad happens. An obnoxious girl named Esmarelda(ph) stirs up trouble. And an unruly African student named Sulamane(ph) has one outburst too many. Without spelling things out, I'll say that Begaudeau loses his empathy and becomes defensive. I'll say the hero of the movie threatens to become its bad guy.

Some critics have railed that Cantet condescends towards these kids, that the class doesn't spotlight students who long to be educated, that it can be used to justify the system's failures. I'll concede the point, but there's a larger message.

The film suggests it's not just racists or reactionaries we need to worry about. It's also genuine idealists who are finally worn down. That's why those real-time classroom scenes are so startling. They show you that at least until the system can be changed, the battles will be moment to moment.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "The Class." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.