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Published: Friday, 4/17/2009

Movie review: The Class ****


It's at first tempting to call The Class, the celebrated French film about a young teacher grappling with the difficulties of classroom life, "Monsieur, With Love." After all, there have been so many English-language films on this topic - Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, The Substitute, and, of course, To Sir With Love - that merely setting the story in Paris wouldn't be enough to shake the feeling that someone has been copying others' homework.

But it soon becomes clear that The Class, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, has little in common with its Anglophone counterparts beyond teachers, desks, and kids with attitude. Based on teacher/novelist Francois Begaudeau's autobiographical book about his time spent in a tough racially and religiously mixed high school, The Class jettisons what has become standard-issue for these movies - the cheap and easy sentimentality, the predictable characters, the hit-driven soundtrack - in favor of something more real.

Director Laurent Cantet shot the film documentary-style, worked up much of the script through improvisation, and cast Begaudeau sort of as himself, playing a teacher named Francois Marin. In addition, the kids are reportedly actual students, not pro actors, although they are portraying characters.

Reinforcing the reality is the fact that The Class rarely leaves the classroom and never leaves the school grounds. The result is akin to being plunked down in the middle of a teacher's hectic year, including all the bureaucratic tedium that implies. (American viewers, however, might wonder how real - or how bad - can a school without firearms and metal detectors be.)

What's most striking is that neither Cantet nor Begaudeau turn Marin into a noble hero who will walk through hell to rescue his students from the clutches of ignorance. In fact, in at least one of the classroom conflicts with students, he's clearly at fault. He's just a guy trying to make it through the day and maybe get one kid to exult in the joys of the French subjunctive.

American directors could learn a thing or two from "The Class."

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