The teacher is often an unsung hero in modern soceity. Yet most of us can pick one teacher that made a huge difference during our developmental years. The French docudrama The Class (Entre les murs) honestly examines the minutia of a middle school in a lower-middle class, multi-ethnic school in Paris. It was the first French film to win the Palme dâ€™Or at Cannes since 1987. Moreover, it's been shortlisted for a 2008 Academy Award nomination. This raw and visceral feature -- using real teachers and students -- by director Laurent Cantet exposes the harsh realities for any student, regardless of grade or background.
Cantet based his movie on a 2006 semi-autobiographical book by Francois Begaudeau, a real teacher who wrote about his classroom experiences. Begaudeau also stars in the movie, which records a year in the life of a Parisian school. We've not witnessed a school room drama this dynamic since Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Sidney Portier in To Sir, with Love (1967) plied their trade in inner-city schools.
If you're looking for faux drama, forget it. There is no gratuitous Hollywood violence by the tough kid versus the tougher teacher; rather, Cantet examines the indifference, difficulties, and dilemmas that both real teachers and real students feel towards each other from day to day. When Mr. Marin tries to mold them into his own image, how to carry yourself with dignity in a world full of chaos, you know it's liberal idealism ripe for resistance. His white man's world is not their world. This central theme is the heart of this extraordinary movie.
How can a white teacher with the noblest of intentions ever stimulate and animate the brains of the hormone-raging, authority-challenging young teenage African, Middle Eastern, white, and other ethnic students? Or how can an over-achieving Chinese student, who barely has a grasp of the French language, and who is dealing with his mother's deportation, rise above the din? The teacher must face that smoldering fire every day, and in doing so may find himself as victimized as the students he is trying to reach.
There are no grand dramatic gestures, silly teenage subplots, or huge dramatic character arcs. This is real. In fact, for some the movie may feel like it's dragging along, but trust me, even if you don't currently have children in school, these small moments will stick with you long after the end credits have rolled.
What Cantet has so effectively delivered is an honest, warts-and-all portrayal of life in the city from the vantage of the classroom. And in doing so, he has exposed the human frailty in all of us. - Dusty Wright
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and is a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. His father taught English at an inner city school.