In an American picture (think Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers), Francois would wrangle the mavericks and make them receptive to lessons that translate into high marks on college entrance exams.
But French movies are not so neatly resolved. In fact, the point of many French movies, such as this provocative one from director Laurent Cantet, is that some problems don't have satisfying solutions - or resolutions.
Francois, charismatic and sometimes testy, is played by Francois Bégaudeau, the real-life schoolteacher and writer whose autobiographical novel inspired the movie. Like English director Mike Leigh, Cantet works with themes rather than a script and has his actors (in the case of The Class, actual Parisian middle-schoolers) workshop and improvise scenes that ultimately are incorporated into the final movie. The result is a film that breathes and aches and laughs like life.
A French instructor and stickler for proper usage, Francois idealistically believes that by teaching his students the language of their adoptive country, he is unifying the sons and daughters of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who have emigrated to France.
His students are skeptical. Who cares about the language spoken by those who treat them like outsiders? I was totally with the students who complained that they didn't need to learn past and imperfect tenses.
Out to electrify his students, Francois discovers his current isn't compatible with all of them. How does he reach the stubborn Sandra (Esmeralda Ouertani), a Franco-Arab with a chip on her shoulder big as Gibraltar? How does he get to belligerent Souleymane (Franck Keita), an immigrant from Mali who resists the resourceful teacher's attempts to get to know him?
Like the instructor in Freedom Writers, Francois assigns his students The Diary of Anne Frank, that universal story of adolescent angst and confessional, to inspire them to create their own self-portraits. He is surprised by what his assignment unleashes and even more surprised that, given an outlet for their self-expression, some students get even more confrontational.
Cantet's camera is dynamic, capturing the perspectives of teacher and pupils, respectful of different points of view. There are no heroes or villains here, only open minds and closed ones. (While the themes of the film are universal, Americans accustomed to the multiculturalism may be surprised by the monocultural underpinnings of the French system.)
The effect of this sobering, funny and, finally, enlightening, portrait is one of enormous sympathy for all parties in the education tango.
The Class ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Laurent Cantet. With Francois Bégaudeau and Franck Keita. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In French with subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity).
Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz/NJ.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/