Awarded the Palme D'or at this year's Cannes film festival, Laurent Cantet's fluid and free-form drama commits itself to the natural, unaffected presentation of the student/teacher relationship. Free from the binds of a traditional dramatic arc, Cantet's film finds a rhythmic pace and settles into an agreeable ebb and flow.
The narrative alternates between extended takes inside the classroom and a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the meetings held in the teacher's lounge. Both situations are presented from the perspective (and viewed through the moral lens) of Mr. Marin, a French teacher at the school, who at the start of the film is beginning his fourth year. This is a refreshing approach since so many films of this particular genre (if you choose to call it that) find a fresh, upstart educator arriving at a run-down school with the dream of making a difference; Marin seems to just want to make it through the year.
That's not to say that he doesn't want to genuinely help these kids and give them a good education, he's just not naive about his role; he knows his limits. And however you feel about films like Lean on Me, Dead Poets Society, and (yuck) Dangerous Minds, I still think you'll find Cantet's dynamic to be a nice change of pace, as well as an effective way of capturing the natural back-and-forth between teacher and student.
The Class is the best film made about this subject that I've seen. Like Nicolas Philibert's stellar 2003 documentary, To Be And To Have, Cantet's film finds beauty and fascination in the simple process of imparting knowledge to a future generation. But whereas Have was set in a rural French village, and focused on a kindly, middle-aged preschool teacher, The Class finds its principal character braving more violent waters. Unfurling over the course of a riveting two hours, Cantet's narrative feature utilizes its modest setting, a middle school in a tough inner-city Paris neighborhood, and explores universal themes of race relations and economic strife.
Acting as a microcosm of modern Parisian society, the class which Mr. Marin teaches is populated by blacks, whites, and Asians, who demonstrate the desire to coexist that their parents perhaps do not, as well as cautious paranoia that unearths hidden prejudices. Fascinatingly, arguments over which nation has a better sports team serve as a sort of compromise, stifling much more volatile disagreements and cultural rifts. They also serve as a reminder of the domesticity of these immigrant-born natives, one of whom struggles to retain his heritage by tattooing his faith-based beliefs on his arm.