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On movies: 'The Class' makes you think, as a good film and good school should

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - It seems fitting that the biggest emotional payoff in "The Class," an absorbing French feature film about junior high school students and their teacher, comes during a brief discussion of Socrates.

The reference to the Greek philosopher is relevant to the film as a whole because the young teacher uses the ever-questioning Socratic method to pry open the minds of students from a racially diverse Paris neighborhood. He challenges them about their attitudes and beliefs and actions in the process of teaching them French irregular verbs.

But the two dozen students in his class, mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants from North and Central Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, don't just submit to the questions - they ask questions back, often with plenty of attitude. And in the process they not only get under the teacher's skin, they pry open his mind. The teacher is not the only person in the classroom playing Socrates.

The result of all this impassioned back-and-forth is a film with remarkable energy. "The Class" is full of surprising moments, moments when the students suddenly hijack the class and send it spinning, setting off fierce discussions of clashing racial and social attitudes and questions of what a public school, and by inference a society, owes to these offspring of French colonialism. Sometimes the teacher can do nothing to stop the storm of words and emotions sweeping over him from the class, and he simply must hang on to his principles and wait for it to pass.

The pivotal moment in the film comes when the teacher, who is not afraid to get personal with the students, who indeed believes that getting personal may be the only way to get through to some of them, unthinkingly snaps out an insult that two young women take very personally. They lash back at him in anger. The rest of the class joins in the verbal attack, the argument gets out of control and something happens that might well get at least one student expelled.

Inevitably, as this section of the film unfolds, we are torn between sympathies -- for the teacher, whose intentions were good even if he went too far in the words he uttered, and for the student, who was caught up in the moment and whose expulsion could have a devastating effect on his life. They both are right, and they both are wrong, but the school system is not set up for such ambiguity.

Director Laurent Cantet ("Heading South") admits that the school in the film is "sometimes very chaotic." However, he says, "from this great chaos, a lot of intelligence can be born." Let's hope so.

"The Class," which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, is not a documentary, but it is about as close to a documentary as a feature film can get. The teacher is played by a former teacher, Francois Begaudeau, who wrote a novel about a year in a classroom. The novel became the basis for the film. The students are real students at a real junior high school in Paris and, in general, the first names they use in the film are their real first names. The teachers are real teachers; most of the parents are real parents. Much of the dialogue was improvised after months of rehearsal workshops with a loose script based on Begaudeau's book. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the movie is how well the students do in immersing themselves in their characters - there is never the sense that we are watching actors; and if you had told me that "The Class" was a pure documentary, I could have believed it.

In one sense, the film is about the rich and sometimes overheated cultural and ethnic gumbo that modern Paris has become. The students challenge the teacher: Why must they study French, they ask, if he's not going to study Arabic or Wolof? Why must they surrender their cultural mores for those of the West? Why must they become French?

These are questions that are also relevant to the United States, with its continuing waves of immigrants. But the film leaves the question open and is never didactic. It is not trying to teach us anything except, perhaps, to keep an open mind, and it doesn't come down on the side of either the students or the teachers. It merely poses crucial questions for the 21st century, a time of increasing racial and ethnic mixing, and it poses them in a gripping dramatic context.

Opens Feb. 27

"Two Lovers"

Director James Gray, who grew up in a Russian-Jewish milieu in New York, has explored that world in gritty crime movies like "Little Odessa" and "We Own the Night." His newest movie is set in Brooklyn among Jews of Russian ancestry, but there are no gunshots or nasty-tempered crime bosses.

"Two Lovers" is an interesting and well-acted if not deeply compelling drama that at times spills into melodrama. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mentally fragile youngish man who is supposed to marry the lovely and sweet daughter of his father's partner in a dry cleaning business. Then he is stricken with love for the even more mentally fragile, blond pill-popper (Gwyneth Paltrow) who lives in the same apartment complex.

With the daughter (Vinessa Shaw), he gets a woman who promises to "take care of him," which he needs. And he would be embraced (or is it smothered?) by a specifically Jewish family culture. With the blond, he gets the exhilaration of crazy love, but he also gets more baggage than even a completely sane man might be able to handle. Which will it be?

The movie manages to answer that question while remaining ambivalent about the man's future. And it leaves us with a further question: Is true love a warm and comfortable and reassuring place to come home to, or is it a trip to the moon on gossamer wings?

Opens Feb. 27

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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