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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Class Conflicts

Doubt (2008) and The Class (2008)

I've been looking forward to Doubt for quite a while. Philip Seymour Hoffman is probably in my top 3 modern actors, Meryl Streep in my top 3 favorite actresses, and I find Amy Adams quite delightful. Looking at that cast list, what could be better than a series of scenes between these actors?

For the most part, the film did not disappoint. All three of the leads (despite their supporting nominations, Hoffman and Adams are just as much leads as Streep) create vivid characters that bring the thoughts and ideas of the movie to life. Streep plays an Sister Aloysius, an old-school nun and school principal in the Bronx in 1964. Hoffman is Father Flynn, the new and progressive priest, and Adams is a young nun and teacher at the school. As you probably know (but if you don't you should probably stop reading), the movie concerns a struggle over the question of whether Flynn's relationship with the school's only black student is inappropriate. The young nun rather innocently brings the allegations, but is torn between the two forces.

In the first portion of the film, the viewer is involved in deciding which of the two is telling the truth. Hoffman's character is mostly likable but possibly corrupt, whereas Streep's is scary but possibly correct. Adams works as a perfect conduit for the audience, trying to decide where her true sympathies lie.

The movie acts much as a cat-and-mouse came until the 2-scene arrival of Viola Davis as the boy's mother. She carries the movie and its philosophical ideals of faith and doubt to a whole new level. Instead of deciding which character is correct in the argument, Davis makes us think about the implications of the situation in a whole new way. I have been a huge proponent of Penelope Cruz winning the Supporting Actress Oscar for Vicky Christina Barcelona, but I think I may switch my allegiance to Viola Davis based on her incredible performance.

The movie is obviously a stage adaptation and at times its source shows a little too much. I think a better director might have found a more involving way to tell the story rather than simply placing groups of 2 or 3 actors in different locales. Nevertheless, Doubt is a highly engaging movie to watch, and it definitely leaves the viewer with questions to ponder and discuss.

Grade: B+

The Class (2008)

I caught The Class, France's entry for foreign film this year, in a screening at the National Geographic Society last night. It opens on Friday in DC (and many other cities), and I hope it generates the audience it deserves.
The Class is based on a memoir by Francois Begaudeu, a teacher in an urban Parisian school. The director actually cast Francois as himself. The movie follows Francois over a year of teaching his 14- and 15-year old multiracial pupils. The movie is so realistic that it is easy to wonder if it is a documentary. It's not, although the filmmaker did use real French students as actors. Working from only the bare bones of a script, they developed their characters through workshops and their characters feel incredibly true.

With no musical score and few moments of what is usually considered extreme drama, The Class is nonetheless a suspenseful and riveting film. It is the most honest and revealing film of the teaching profession I have seen, and certainly puts American urban-teacher movies (with the exception of Half Nelson, another great and realistic film) to shame.

The movie is set in Paris, but I believe the position of the teacher with his class is universal to any teacher, particularly those in environments where race and nationality come into play. Through Begaudeu's give-and-take relationship with his students, the film examines issues of power, dialogue, and respect in the classroom. It also brings up issues of race, nationality, and the relevance of traditional education in a modern world. The movie bursts with life largely because of the young actors. They portray students who are bright, curious, but also constantly questioning the usefulness of what they are learning and the motives of their teachers. There are also scenes where we see glimpses of the students' home lives, although always in the context of the classroom.

The Class is a great film, one of the best of the year, that is thought provoking and engaging in the best way. As a teacher (although of much younger students), I certainly related to it in an especially powerful way, as I think most teachers will. If you are not a teacher, this movie will give you a glimpse into the passions and struggles that go into every single day in the classroom. See it.

Grade: A

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