The Oscars are this Sunday, and I still need to see Benjamin Button and The Reader to complete my usual routine of seeing at least all five Best Picture nominees. I suspect I'll get Benjamin Button under my belt on Saturday or Sunday, but I'm not going to go out of my way to see The Reader. Kate Winslet pretty much sums up her own reasons for doing the film in the following clip. The pertinent part is from 3:20 through 4:15.
I've seen a lot of the films this year. Most recently, on Thursday night, I saw "The Class" or "Entre les Murs", the French film in the Foreign Films category. Great film. Maybe the best one I've seen all year (though "Slumdog Millionaire" is way up there. Two completely different films. Hard to compare. Also, I saw "The Visitor" in 2007, so I don't count it for last year).
"The Class" is a single-camera, documentary-style film set in a semi-rough French high school (although for those who've seen The Wire, season 4, it's clearly not the worst place you could be). Our protagonist teaches French at the high school, which is fodder for amusing conversations about how "people don't really talk like that anymore" and when to use the imperfect imperative and so on. These little nuggets of exchanges are all microcosms of the films larger theme which is the difficulty of many adults in communicating with young people and vice versa.
While it's certainly true that the kids have the most to lose in their lives in general, most of them coming from very tenuous or questionable homes, in the classroom it's the adults who stand to lose. The kids know the limits of the disrespect they can get away with, and it's up to the adults to make the constant, in-the-moment decisions about what disrespect can be tolerated and what needs to be punished. Even with all the humor, lively exchanges in the classrooms, and the mutual respect that seemed to exist between Francois and his French students, I felt on-edge the entire film, because at any second it could all fall apart.
Based on the premise, it would be easy to lump this one in with all the other "Stand and Deliver", "Dangerous Minds", and on-and-on kind of films, but this one doesn't cram anything down your throat. It follows an entire school year, everything is shot on location at a school, we don't see the students home lives, nor the teachers'. (There are "retreat" scenes where the teachers meet in the breakroom to vent, strategize and bicker about their tactics for dealing with the kids.) There's no scene where the students stand on their desks and defend their teacher loudly. It all feels real and natural. Some kids excel, some fall behind. Some fates offer hope and others make you worry.
The performances are pretty amazing. It's hard to shoot a film in documentary, fly-on-the-wall style and make the performances seem real, but this movie pulls it off impeccably.
See it! It's still showing in Chicago at the Landmark Century.