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CLASS, THE (Entre les murs) (director/writer: Laurent Cantet; screenwriters: François Bégaudeau/Robin Campillo/based on the novel “Entre les Murs” (“Between the Walls”) by Mr. Bégaudeau; cinematographers: Pierre Milon/Catherine Pujol/Georgi Lazarevski; editor: Robin Campillo; cast: François Bégaudeau (François Marin), Wei Huang (Wei), Esméralda Ouertani (Esméralda), Franck Keïta (Souleymane), Rachel Regulier (Khoumba); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Caroline Benjo/Carole Scotta/Barbara Letellier/Simon Arnal; Sony Pictures Classics; 2008-France-in French with English subtitles)
“One of the best school pics ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Laurent Cantet (“Human Resources”/”Time Out”/”Heading South”) directs this perceptive inspirational teaching drama about a multi-ethnic (African, Arab and Asian) rowdy junior high school class of, I believe, 14-and 15-year-olds in the inner city of Paris. It covers the efforts of dedicated French teacher François Marin (François Bégaudeau) during the span of a school year to stimulate his tough class and help them find their identity. The compelling film, one of the best school pics ever made, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It was based on the semi-autobiographical novel “Between the Walls” by the 37-year-old former real-life school teacher François Bégaudeau, who plays the featured teacher, a fictionalized version of himself, dealing with a thankless low-paying job that is filled with tension from dealing with students and staff. Bégaudeau turns in not only an intriguing acting job but the energetic screenplay with Cantet and writer Robin Campillo.

The sheer beauty of this film is that it honestly shows in a naturalistic way that teachers are not necessarily miracle workers and sometimes make judgmental mistakes and sometimes can’t reach every student, even if they make an impact on the overall class. It’s pointed out that the reasons for such failures in student-teacher relationships are many fold: maybe the student doesn’t want to be reached, the teacher can’t handle a student he doesn’t understand, or there might be cultural or home related problems or bureaucratic conditions that foul up the works.

The low-budget film was shot with a small crew and three digital cameras, over the course of a school year, and the cameras never leaves the school grounds. The students were cast from auditions, and the classroom sessions required no scripts as it was turned into an improvisational workshop classroom. Bégaudeau does a nice teaching job provoking his hard to reach class into some lively and free-wheeling discussions, succeeding in getting them to write a self-portrait and getting them to pay attention to the use of proper grammar even though they are resistant.

The main melodramatics revolve around a hostile and quick-tempered student from Mali named Souleymane (Franck Keïta), who causes an incident in class that gets him expelled and reveals that even this well-intentioned veteran teacher can mess up in dealing with a student who is a behavioral problem. The teacher miscalculates what he says about the student at a staff meeting, as he’s goaded by the staff into calling him “limited.” Later in the classroom, the teacher becomes frustrated by a couple of snarky, taunting and obnoxious female students who attended the disciplinary hearing and told the student in question what the teacher said in confidence. In response, for this breach in ethics, the angry teacher slipped by calling them “skanks.” This backfired, as it gave the looking for trouble student from Mali an opportunity to go off and a chain of events occurred that got out of control. In the end, the caring teacher wins back control of the class and we observe that most students have learned their school lessons as well as could be expected (though one quiet coed tells the likable and confident but flawed teacher at the end of the school year that she didn’t learn anything, as he seemingly never paid her enough attention because he was more concerned with the acting out students).

The intelligent emotionally-charged film turns its back on the phony looking mainstream films like To Sir, with Love and turns its own unruly classroom lessons into something with more depth, that’s also more realistic and provocative. It’s not only entertaining but is so well-constructed that it could be used as a training manual film for teachers in inner-city schools in the States.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”