'The Class' is a study in eloquence, insight

There is a tired yet resilient trope that says, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." The individual who constructed that snide comment clearly had never stood before a classroom of middle-school children attempting to involve them in a process called education.

"The Class" eloquently and insightfully makes the point.

As a rule, it is all but impossible to convey to an audience, who has never spent a year with a group of middle-school students, what is involved in gathering up some 25 adolescents, each with unique life experiences, and collectively taking them through, say, "Lord of the Flies." It is only due to the sheer will of the teacher that chapters are read, paragraphs written and class discussions held.

For the teacher, it can be an exhausting journey, often taken on the high wire, a balancing act between encouraging the students to express their ideas openly, freely and chaos.

Looking out at 24 young adolescents, simmering anarchy and rebellion and physical changes all in play, can be unsettling at best. And yet there are moments of unexpected intimacy when their masks of cultivated insouciance fall away and insight and engagement and understanding infuse a lesson and the class is transformed. Until it isn't, and the process begins again.

That's how it is. And that's the truth that is ever elusive when trying to explain the essence of teaching.

And it is the brilliance of the film "The Class" that it was able to capture, with startling insight, what it means to work in a school that draws its diverse students from a French working-class neighborhood, each a Gordian knot of resistance, unresolved identity, intense emotions, many are the children of first-generation immigrants — Africans, Moroccans, Asians, Arabs — who don't feel completely welcome in the country where they were born.

Their teacher, Mr. Begaudeau, each day steps into the crosscurrents of his French class (the equivalent of an English teacher, here) and willingly skirts the precipice.

He cajoles his students to engage, challenges their views and learns painfully, repeatedly, that though they sense his good will, his wish that they learn, their alliance will never be with him. They resist his efforts at every turn, undermine each lesson if possible and yet assume that they are protected by his patience, concern and unyielding wish that they succeed.

"The Class" is a remarkable film, winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, based on a French bestseller, "Between the Walls" (slated to be released in America this spring), and written by Francois Begaudeau, who plays himself in the movie. He is not a professional actor, nor are the students.

Shot over an entire academic year, with three high-definition cameras, documentary in style, it is ever-convincing and involving. And though the film is set in a middle school on the outskirts of Paris, it could have been shot in any urban school in America where teaching can feel like guerilla warfare and getting through the day is about holding a certain instructional line and trying not to retreat.

Those who can, teach. This film attempts to define what that means.

Observe and Report

How to even begin to critique "Observe and Report," written and directed by Jody Hill and starring the familiar Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt, head of security for Forest Ridge Mall.

In a film filled with over-the-top cheesy moments, there's one wherein a character, who has been hiding in a closet, exits prematurely, saying, "I'm outta here. I thought this was gonna be funny and it's just sad." Which sums up this movie perfectly.

Sad is the operative word. Sad because it was meant to be a comedy of errors in which we are intended to laugh at a Chaplinesque, sad-sack klutz; instead, it turns out to be a tale about Ronnie, an authoritarian, delusional mall cop, apparently bi-polar, self-absorbed and completely unaware of his impact on others.

In truth, he is a mini train wreck each time he attempts to handle anything other than a false alarm set off in a mall boutique.

In other words, Ronnie is incompetent and oblivious, as are director Hill and Rogen regarding the subtext of this film. Ronnie, clearly, nurtures a simmering anger directed at those who don't give him the deference he feels he deserves. His judgment is constantly off-center and he speaks and reacts inappropriately, lasing out with violence. He has vivid fantasies of carrying a gun, spends time at the shooting range blasting away at paper bad guys with an array of weaponry, and chafes at the fact that he can only carry a Taser on the job. Meanwhile, he is constantly taking his meds.

Ronnie is a disaster waiting to happen and constantly sends up red flags that indicate he is not benign nor a harmless misfit; rather, his behavior should put all those he comes into contact with on high alert.

Hill and Rogen seem completely tone deaf to the real meaning of this character, and should cringe as this vacuous film opens in the wake of multiple mass killings across the country, perpetrated by variations of Ronnie.

As act three of the film concludes, Ronnie is fired from his security duties at the mall, is told he has failed to gain admittance to the local police academy, and we see him return to the mall armed. As it turns out, he shoots a serial flasher (his nemesis throughout the movie), spraying blood everywhere. The response of the mall patrons is to cheer and clap.

Bottom line is that the makers of this crass film are contemptuous of their audience, which is all too self-evident. Hopefully, the audience will return the sentiment.

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