Soulemayne has a stunning smile. He also has an explosive temper and a tattoo he claims is a passage from the Qur'an that translates as, IF YOUR WORDS ARE LESS IMPORTANT THAN SILENCE, KEEP QUIET. Questions about the importance of words drive "The Class," an exhausting, exuberant film about one teacher's attempts to communicate with a class of French high-school students. The film's premise may sound familiar. "The Class," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and is an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, is based on a memoir by François Bégaudeau, who taught in a high school where many of the students were the children of immigrants and came from low-income families. But director Laurent Cantet says he sees his movie as a response to films "inspired by" idealistic teachers' experiences in rough schools: "Stand and Deliver," "Music of the Heart," "Freedom Writers," etc. "I want audiences to realistically see how difficult it is to be a teacher," he says. "If you want to give a real image, you have to accept that you won't answer all the questions you ask in the film."
"The Class" isn't a documentary, but the scenes have the loose, slow-cooked feel of a director turning on a camera and waiting to see what happens—think Mike Leigh meets Frederick Wiseman. Rather than working from a script, the actors, all nonprofessionals, improvised scenes suggested by episodes from Bégaudeau's book. (Bégaudeau, who plays himself in the film, helped guide the improvisations.) Most of the film consists of dialogue, as students and teacher talk at, over and around each other. Bégaudeau, renamed Monsieur Marin, attempts to teach verb tenses, poetry and "The Diary of Anne Frank"—the same book that magically turns the apathetic, self-absorbed kids in "Freedom Writers" into sensitive citizens of the world (but fails to do the trick in "The Class"). Marin's efforts are hijacked by the kids, who constantly challenge him on the relevance of the material to their lives. When he has them write self-portraits, the disparity between what they study and how they live is stark. Sandra (Esmeralda Ouertani) wants to become a cop to prove not all police are bad. Carl (Carl Nanor) hates visiting his brother in prison. Soulemayne (Franck Keïta) rebels against the assignment altogether, writing, "Nobody knows me but me," which wins sarcastic applause from Marin and laughter from his classmates. Soulemayne has a point: how well can Marin actually know the kids? Do they share a common language at all?
The drama comes not from the way Marin reaches the kids but how he fails them. Throughout the film, teacher and students misunderstand each other: he doesn't get their slang, and they question his idioms. When the kids challenge him about having to learn the imperfect subjunctive, he engages in a circular discussion that basically boils down to "because I said so." What he's really trying to convey is that it's less important to be able to use specific verb forms than to understand the way speech can chain you to your circumstance, or allow you to transcend it. "Language is a social marker," says Cantet. "If you understand that, you understand the necessity to learn, and that's what François is always trying to teach them."
To the kids, Marin is bourgeois, an emblem of a nationalist, monoculturalist France they have no interest in being citizens of. Their defiance is both maddening and touching in its naiveté, and feels tremendously familiar—you imagine similar debates taking place in urban American high schools today. Also familiar is the ennui, which can flip in an instant to chaos. The students have two modes: sullen and half-asleep, or voluble and out of control. "In school, you are dealing with all the issues that society doesn't really want to look at—the problems of immigration, for example," Cantet says. "The students feel themselves stigmatized. If you feel stigmatized, of course you need to talk louder, and then you reach these riots we had a few years ago, these violent ways of showing you exist."
At the end of the year, when their teacher asks them what they've learned, the kids offer arbitrary bits of data and hilariously mangled facts. One girl who's been quiet all year confesses she hasn't learned anything. The moment is stunning for its willingness to question the value of education, and for the honesty of Marin's response: he looks out the window, unable to reassure her. He may be reflecting on what the year has taught him, as a teacher. He may just be impatient to start his summer vacation. In a film filled with endless chatter, this silence says everything.