There but for fortune

This is my review of The Class [DVD] [2008].

Based on the autobiography of an idealistic and individualistic young French teacher who plays himself in the film and drawing on many hours of improvisation with pupils in a "tough" multi-ethnic Parisian school, so skilfully directed that it makes a drama seem like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, "Entre les Murs" or "The Class" will strike a chord if not raise goose bumps in anyone who has taught in this environment. The film captures to perfection the claustrophobic, unrelenting, intense, absorbing, frustrating, exhausting, addictive world of teaching in an inner city secondary school. Most of the teachers are young and casually dressed by Govian standards. Yet perhaps unrealistic rules of iron lie beneath the velvet glove. By turns hilarious and disturbing, this could trigger many debates on teaching methods, what to teach adolescents, how far to accommodate different cultures, the pros and cons of integrating "bright kids" into diverse social groups at the price of failing to stretch them.

We see Monsieur Marin's patient persistence in encouraging his pupils to think and express themselves effectively, continually trying to find ways round their hostility to traditional French culture and realising that his ignorance of theirs is a frequent cause of misunderstanding. The camaraderie of the staffroom is often fractured by fundamental differences in opinion: the teacher who wants Marin's class to read a French novel to tie in with history lessons on the Enlightenment, which Marin tactfully suggests the students will find "tough"; the same teacher's absolute views of rules to be followed, whereas the liberal Marin prefers a more flexible approach. A staff meeting, demonstrates the familiar situation in which teachers seem more exercised over the cost of the coffee machine than agreement of a penalty system for naughty pupils.

There are examples of "political correctness" delivered with a mask of courteous objectivity which may unintentionally lead to injustice. In one scene, teachers discussing student grades are distracted by but do nothing to reprove two giggling student representatives elected to listen to the process, apparently without a clear code of conduct as to how they should behave in the meeting and afterwards. This seemed to me the one serious false note in the film. Or does it reflect French school practice?

A storyline gradually emerges, focusing on a moody Arab boy who cannot manage his anger. Despite Marin's empathy for him, and even a small heart-warming breakthrough on a piece of work, an unfortunate chain of events leads to a climax which Marin, in a rare lapse which I found a little hard to believe, has inadvertently helped to trigger.

A near perfect film, highly recommended.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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