Tuesday, August 11, 2009

DVD review: "The Class"

"The Class" received some of the highest grades of any film last year, including a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, and the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. And this was not the result of some stuffy cinephiles indulging in grade inflation.

This mesmerizing French drama unfolds in a cinema verite style in a Parisian classroom, where a multi-racial group of students take on a well-meaning but misguided young teacher. The instructor is played by François Bégaudeau, who wrote the book and screenplay based on his real-life experiences as an inner-city teacher.

I liked the way the school year unfolds organically, with some of the students commanding center stage as the movie begins, but eventually receding into the background as other figures come to the fore.

One girl, Khoumba, has a confrontation with the teacher that ends in a sort of detente where they have disengaged as learner and pupil. And at one point the teacher appears to have made a breakthrough with Souleymane, the tall boy who sits in the back and refuses to do his work, but later on an altercation escalates the tension for the entire class.

The DVD includes some extra features that are fairly limited in scope, but shed a great deal of light on the film's genesis.

An incisive 41-minute making-of documentary takes us right into the classroom where director Laurent Cantent trained multiple cameras on the classroom and encouraged his actors to improvise. Not only that, but he worked with them in workshops for months before shooting began, and their contribution helped in completing the screenplay. There's also some newsreel footage of the students reveling at Cannes.

Less interesting is a commentary by Cantent and Bégaudeau for only two pivotal scenes. Their discussion is interesting enough, but they actually stop and rewind the action so we can cut to the two talking heads. A full-length commentary track, minus the annoying cutaways, would have gotten higher marks.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

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