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To sir, with sneer

Movies | Oscar contender challenges liberal axiom about troubled schools

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

The classroom drama is a standard film genre: Think of To Sir, with Love in the 1960s, Stand and Deliver in the 1980s, and Dangerous Minds in the 1990s. Such films typically display an axiom of liberalism: Basically good students are stuck in a harsh socioeconomic environment, but a caring teacher who sides with the students against "the system" can make all the difference. Christ is not needed.

A French film, The Class, shown briefly last year to make it Oscar-eligible, and only now receiving wider American distribution, transcends the genre in its refusal to end with a smile. Every teacher, particularly those in urban areas, should see The Class, not because it will make them feel good but because it will make them think more deeply about how to challenge the bad.

Part of the reality arises from the casting. François Bégaudeau, a real-life teacher in a Parisian middle school who wrote the book on which the script is based, plays a teacher like himself. The 25 adolescents in his class are 25 real-life students who (with cameras rolling) interacted in a room with Bégaudeau. They riffed off the script, with their improvised banter giving the classroom talk a natural feel: The teacher himself, not above the fray, gets into arguments with students, one of which leads to severe consequences.

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This genre often has the teacher forced to combat reactionaries or racists who look upon his students as animals. The Class shows that a greater challenge hour by hour comes from the students themselves, who slyly work to push the teacher over the edge, congratulate each other when he does go over, and don't show gratitude when he doesn't. The Class drags a bit in the middle, because the daily teacher-student struggle starts to seem repetitive in its lack of resolution, but that drag gives a sense of how teachers at mid-term often feel.

Then comes the crisis that I won't reveal here: Plot spoilers are OK if the reviewer doesn't want readers to see the film, but this one you should see. I will mention that, in a moment when Bégaudeau could affect a student's life by offering forgiveness and owning up to sin in himself, he forfeits that opportunity. After that climactic bang The Class moves on to end in a whimper: On the last day of school, one student sadly tells the teacher, "I didn't learn anything," and others retain only trivia.

The closing shot is of chairs askew in the classroom, and the impression left is that the entire state educational system is also askew: It keeps kids off the streets and provides a babysitter, but much more is needed. The vividness is enough to have won The Class the Palme d'Or-equivalent to an Oscar for Best Picture-at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The Class is not a Christian film, but its realistic sense of futility is more likely than secular false optimism to leave viewers aware of our need for Christ.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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