Thursday, February 25, 2010
Although sadly school violence has become all too common place in recent years, very few films have dared to examine it. Gus Van Sant did it thoughtfully and patiently in his Tarr inspired Elephant, which took home the Palm D'Or at Cannes when it debuted. That film dealt with the daily routines of a number of high school students on the day of the shooting. Conversely, Ilmar Raag's Klass details the weeks leading up to its sad climax, dissecting just how such an event can happen.
One day, after being chided by his girlfriend, Kaspar (Vallo Kirs) for helping pick on Joosep (Part Uusberg), he begins to change his ways, and sympathize with the boy. This causes his friends - the bullies - to turn on him, and soon both are the victims. Their daily routine consists of Kaspar trying to protect Joosep, and trying to stop their beatings. After weeks of torture, and a fateful trick used to assemble the two into a trap on a beach one day changes everything for everyone.
Director Raag uses a frenetic editing pace in many segments. Some scenes are masterfully created with cutaways timed nicely, while at other times the editing is too busy, trying to be too flashy. That can be a distraction, and I think takes away from the film. Raag also mixes up his soundtrack, at times using pounding techno music, sometimes working, good sometimes not. On the other hand, Raag also employs a few beautiful orchestral pieces, sparsely. Although I would have liked to see them used more throughout the film, when they do occasionally play I admit it does seem to make what's on screen just that much more poignant. Raag also uses some ambient strings here and there, usually playing one booming note at a time, which i thought was interesting. He seems to have a keen sense for tonally offbeat direction, which I like. If he can tone down his want of flash (which I do not really like), I think he has some serious potential.
Although i would have preferred Klass to be a quieter picture, I still think this is a very very strong film. It is unquestionably a modern film, dealing with somewhat modern issues. Some certainly will - and have - call into question some of the plausibility of the film. For example, teacher's rarely seem to be present. My answer to their quarrel would be that such realist logic need not apply here. Whereas Van Sant's Elephant was shot as documentary, Klass is shot as parable. It's about why otherwise good kids can to unthinkable things. Typically, these kids are no more evil than those who pushed them over the edge to begin with. Klass does something that is not uncommon in pictures, by making its villains worthy scum. Given that this is about a school shooting, that is actually quite a bold move. Raag makes his bullies despicable, putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of wanting to see them punished, and handily. It's all about empathy.
Even teacher's have a hand in such cruelty. Klass includes a couple moments of subtle hostility by one teacher, as Joosep expresses the vanity of individuals defining themselves by label. This is a not so direct theme throughout the film in fact. The teenagers, of course, are covered in head to toe with their brand name clothes, and chide Joosep for not wearing such clothes, yet harass him for wearing brand name sneakers - shoes fit for someone cooler than he.
This is a very strong film from Raag. It is well acted by its leads. It contains flashes of greatness. The film works best when it sticks to its story. Raag gets carried away with his direction at times, but despite it the film still works very well. It is a thoughtful film. It can be painfully cruel, but such subject matter deserves cruelty. When Kaspar and Joosep make that fateful walk into the school, their expressions are not of anger, but of profound sadness, which I suspect is what most must be truly feeling. I found the last few moments of this film dreadfully sad. When the shots are silenced, the heavy presence of inevitability sets in with the contemplation of all which has just happened. Such weight should be felt on all our shoulders. We've all been bullied, bullies, or the conscientious middle man at some point in our lives. Klass is one Estonian export that classrooms all over the world could benefit from.
By MacAindrais from Canada