Saturday, March 28, 2009
Between The Walls
I've been looking forward to seeing The Class (French title: Entre les murs) since I caught previews back in '08. The premise is simple: over the course of a schoolyear, the film follows the lives of a teacher and his students at a high school in a tough Parisian neighborhood. Only it's not so cut-and-dry.
It would be easy to write this movie off as the French version of Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, or Freedom Writers, but you would miss so much. I actually don't recommend this movie for the casual moviegoer; I don't think you'd get it. This movie--which is written, directed, and acted beautifully--uses the classroom as a microcosm from which to discuss society as a whole. Consequently, you must go in prepared to learn, prepared to feel uncomfortable, prepared to take sides, and, finally, prepared to be confused.
I'm a teacher, and it was enlightening to see that the politics of the classroom (particularly the inner-city classroom) translate seamlessly between mine in southwest Philly and the Parisian one in this movie. The students share similar stories and personalities, as does the teacher. They all struggle with similar issues. Moreover, it was encouraging to encounter a teacher who thinks. The movie is preoccupied with Ethics and explores the philosophy through language. (It's dialogue-heavy and the teacher teaches French--as in grammar/literature.) Even the original French title "entre les murs" means literally "between the walls," and carries with it both the connotations of a classroom and a prison. And so as we watch students interrupt a lesson on the subjunctive mood to debate with their teacher why they even have to learn it, we find the fissures which form the fault lines in educational philosophy today. What's the point of learning something that you never use (and what's the point of teaching it)? Why is such value placed on these things which in many ways prevent people from succeeding and have no real purpose or utility?
These questions and a number of others--about race, class, gender, sexuality, and, ultimately, power--are thrown out continuously. Few, if any, are answered. In one of the movie's final scenes, the teacher, Mr. Marin, simply asks his students, "What have you learned?" They provide interesting--some humorous--responses, but in the end, you're left feeling like the question was more for you than the students.
The verdict: go see it, thinking caps in tow.