The Class (2009)

Rated PG-13.. Our ratings: V- 1; L- 4; S/N . Running time: 2 hour 8 min.

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill…
How much better to get wisdom than gold!
To get understanding is to be chosen rather
than silver…
Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.
Proverbs 1:1-5; 16:16; 22:6

Fran ois Marin and his class of adolescent inner city kids.
2009 Sony PicturesClassics

I love teacher-facing-tough-class films, from way back to Good Bye, Mr. Chips and Blackboard Jungle to Freedom Writers and this latest addition to my long list. This is definitely not Freedom Writers, in that at one point the class challenges their teacher’s unconscious racist assumption, and practically rebel when in a fit of exasperation he insults two girls. When director Laurent Canteta set out to adapt to the screen the best-selling autobiographical novel by teacher Francois Begaudeau, he cast the author himself as the movie teacher, and then sought non-actor youth as the students. The result, after months of improvisational rehearsals, is a film that seems like a documentary, with the interchange between teacher and students, sometimes friendly, often hostile, filled with electric energy.

In the many scenes in which the teachers exchange views and tales we see that they all care for their students, who, living in Paris’s inner-city, are a multiethnic lot. François (Begaudeau) Marin teaches French in a breezy, friendly way, joking with the students at times, and then, when his authority is questioned, digging in his heels to say that such academic details as the passive pluperfect subjunctive is important, regardless of how irrelevant it seems to his class.

His students include Sandra (Esmeralda Ouertani), impudent and thus often the target of Marin’s sharp-edged wit; Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), a black girl who thinks he has a grudge against her because she refuses to read aloud from Anne Frank’s diary and then often insults him; Wei (Wei Huang), an illegal Chinese immigrant who is well behaved and often bothered that his classmates feel no shame for their behavior; Carl (Carl Nanor), a West Indies transfer student who is a late enrollee because of his expulsion from another schools; and Souleymane (Franck Keita), a Malian Muslim always causing trouble, almost daring anyone to help him.

When Souleymane asks Marin whether he is a homosexual, he pretends that he is only trying to find out about a rumor supposedly circulating. During one heated exchange their confrontation becomes so heated that Marin orders the student to the principal’s office, and when Souleymane tries to twist away, one of the other students is hit in the face during the scuffle. Actually, the Malawian student was defending the reputation of two female students whom Marin had accused of behaving like female prostitutes. In the hearing that follows, Marin is almost as much on trial as the student. However, when the other teachers recommend that Souleymane be expelled, Marin objects because he is certain that the boy’s strict father will send his son back to Malawi. Nevertheless, the vote for expulsion carries.

For all who are interested in education, as well as culture clash, this is a good film to watch and discuss, the director serving as a somewhat neutral reporter, siding with neither teacher nor his often unruly charges. The teacher is no saint, but a human being subject to loss of temper, and even failure in getting through to a tough student.

For Reflection/Discussion

1, With which, if any, of the characters do you identify? What incidents do you see in which they misunderstand each other?

2. What do you think the so-called problem students understand by education? More as punishment or an ordeal they must endure? As necessary for getting a job?

3. What do the teachers seem to understand education to be? A means of obtaining a job or discovering a full life? What do they expect their students to accomplish in life, being from such a low level of society? High or low expectations? Do any convey the thrill of learning?

4. What do you think education is? What is the difference between acquiring knowledge and facts—or, in the words of Proverbs, “instruction” ? What relationship does this have with wisdom?

5. Do you think that your school gave you an education, or the credentials for acquiring a job? Is there one or more teachers who impressed you in some way? Any who conveyed the thrill of learning as discovery?

6. How does this compare with other films of this genre? If teachers can make such a difference in the lives of students, why do you think that they have traditionally received relatively low pay? (Compare a teacher’s top salary in your area to that of a school administrator.) Do you see signs that this is changing with a new administration in Washington?