Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Class

It is not often that you come across a movie that has as its lead actor, the very writer of the novel on which the film is based. Laurent Cantet's intriguing film "The Class" has in its lead role of the class teacher, the novelist and co-screenplay-writer Francois Begaudeau. That's only the first surprise the film pulls on the viewer.
If you went to into the film theater without knowing much about the film you are likely to think you are watching a documentary. That's the second surprise—it is not a documentary.
The film is apparently a semi-autobiographical story of the novelist and lead actor Begaudeau. Begaudeau himself was primarily a school teacher before he morphed his own life into a novelist, journalist, and an actor. But wait a moment. Even director Cantet's parents were teachers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the intimate knowledge of the teaching and the film-making processes get married seamlessly within the film and this contributed substantially to the film being honored as the first French film to win the Golden Palm at Cannes in 21 years!
Cantet allows the viewer to study the process of educating a fresh class of bubbly and street-smart adolescent kids in a Paris suburban school. Classroom education today in many parts of the world has evolved from the dictatorial British format where the learned teacher lectures and the student imbibes what he sees and hears. Today, teaching in progressive schools is more democratic, where the teacher allows student participation, where the student is encouraged to talk and become an integral part of the education process, contributing knowingly or unknowingly and "democratically" to the education of other students in the class just as much as the teacher. It is not without intent that one of the bright Internet-savvy kids in the film brings up the subject of Plato's "Republic" into discussion, but then the intelligent viewer is forced to recall that teaching for Aristotle's own students centuries ago was democratic and peripatetic. Begaudeau the teacher is flummoxed and that's precisely what Cantet the director of the film stresses to the viewer—the very quality and process of imparting knowledge today is dissected. Plato wanted a philosopher king to provide for the common good. He also believed democracy would just lead to mob rule, which is basically an oligarchy. Cantet appears to ask the viewer if the teacher is the Platonic philosopher king. Aristotle studied under Plato and disagreed with Plato on almost fundamentally everything. Cantet's film introduces parallels of bright adolescent kids being educated in the classroom as Aristotle would have been in Plato's class. Begaudeau teaches his students often like Plato would while adopting the peripatetic approach of Aristotle's own teaching style though confined within the four walls of the class.
The film is demanding of the viewer. The film is definitely not everyone's cup of tea.
To a casual film goer, the movie would resemble a live recording of a high-school class of boys and girls with a teacher probing the minds of his students, made up of different backgrounds, races, religions and representing various continents. There are tense moments, hilarious repartees, behind the scene meetings of teachers evaluating students, parent teacher meetings and even stocktaking of a "year gone by" in the school. The film's content can disappoint some viewers looking for conventional action, sex or heavy intrigue.
Cantet's approach to cinema is far removed from the typical Hollywood film. Yet Cantet and the screenplay writing team that included Begaudeau urge the viewer to zoom-out his/her mind from the microscopic events taking place within the confines of the four walls of class--the ethnic tensions, the psychological warfare and the social criticism--as they are equally likely to take place in the wider world outside the class, beyond the school, even beyond France. That is the beguiling aspect of Cantet's film.
The innovation apart, what is extraordinary in this film? One, the film clearly indicates the classroom has evolved from the classroom of "To Sir, with Love," or "Dead Poet's Society." Today, teaching adolescents is no longer a simple task. Students are well-aware of current social and political issues, thanks to the Internet and related technology. Teachers need to be aware of several bits of information and trivia to be on top of their class. Second, "The Class" progresses to reveal manipulative student behavior towards their teachers that British cinema revealed decades earlier to us. British films, such as "Absolution" (1978, with Richard Burton) and "Term of Trial" (1962, with Laurence Olivier) are vivid examples. Unlike the two entertaining British movies, all the action in Cantet's "The Class" is restricted to two school rooms—-the actual classroom and another room where teachers interact among themselves or with parents. Third, the film grapples with the question of the broader issues of equality within a classroom, a school and elsewhere in society. Fourth, the film is about current issues of integration of different cultures that perhaps confront Europe, Canada, and Australia more than it does in the USA. Africans and Asians are now citizens of France but do they get understood by the majority? A student Suleyman says in the film: "I have nothing to say about me because no one knows me but me."
How many teachers allow for two-way communication in a class? The film presents a growing challenge for educators of today. Can we go back to the days of Aristotle or do we prefer to learn under the teacher who "dictates"? Are we providing the turf for democracy or for dictatorships to emerge in society from the lowly classroom? This is a sensitive film meant for film-goers expecting more than frothy entertainment. The two final shots, somewhat similar, of the film graphically (and silently) capture the entire case of the film that preceded those shots. That was truly remarkable

Saturday, June 02, 2012

The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner

As if to reaffirm the nascent uptrend in Eastern European cinema, Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev’s 2009 Academy Award nominee The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner arrives on the heels of Ilmar Raag’s excellent feature Klass (2007) and Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Centered around the themes of immigration and associated cultural dislocation, the subject matter of Komandarev’s film is evidently less sexy than hot topics like high school violence or abortion, which explains the muted critical response and limited distribution that have plagued this title, unheard of among international audiences.
Yet, in terms of offering an accurate account of the post-Communist Eastern European experience, Komandarev hits the nail on the head with his portrayal of Sashko, a young German-Bulgarian man living a life rich in comfort and material possessions, yet strangely lacking in meaning. A tragic auto accident inadvertently leads to Sashko’s gradual rediscovery of his Bulgarian roots over the course of a road trip he takes with his grandfather Bai Dan, making the young man’s search for identity one of the film’s key motifs.
Based on Ilija Trojanov’s novel published in 1996, the picture offers a creative exploration of the last few decades of Bulgaria’s totalitarian history as told via the apolitical lens of the life of a family. While plot developments tend to be consistently predictable and Komandarev clearly do not shy away from moments of cliché, his work has an important message for its audience: as Bai Dan succinctly puts it, that “life is like the dice in our hands; fate is determined by the skill and luck of the player.”
Sashko and Bai Dan’s bicycle odyssey through central Europe and the Balkans is not only a physical but also a symbolic journey that takes the uprooted Sashko across a vast gulf of cultures from the present to the past, from modernity to tradition, from Germany to Bulgaria. The director’s choice to intersperse scenes from the present day road trip with flashbacks from the past appears to be an indirect way of reaffirming the possibility and importance of rediscovering one’s cultural heritage, however foreign or remote it may seem to be.
Beautifully filmed and edited on a shoestring budget, the work impresses on many levels with its purity, aesthetics and unbridled enthusiasm for life. There’s something inexplicably epic about this film, thanks in large part to Komanderev’s ability to paint an eloquent picture of the Bulgarian experience comparable to that crafted by Giuseppe Tornatore in Cinema Paradiso (1988) of its Italian counterpart.
The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner is a truly beautiful, mesmerizing film and no doubt one of the greatest ever made in Bulgaria. Together with Kamen Kalev’s more recent but equally outstanding production Eastern Plays (2009), Komandarev’s work puts the country on the cinematic roadmap of Europe, signaling the emergence of its film scene from post-Communist decline.
Easy to recommend to most audiences, this is one title you will want to go out of your way to see because, if nothing else, it will surely rekindle those old college dreams of backpacking across Europe.