At the World Cinema Showcase, a blackboard jungle. By BRANNVANAN GNANLINGAM.

ONE OF the key planks to those naïve enough to subscribe to either free market ideologies or socialist ideologies is that education is the key to fixing the social ills. Loosely speaking, there is the belief that social inequalities can be fixed between the walls. The top prize-winner from Cannes last year, and the first French film to win the honour for decades, Laurent Cantet’s The Class takes place in such a sealed environment – one teacher (François Bégaudeau) and a gaggle of students jostle over words, actions and mood swings while trying to learn French. Based on Bégaudeau’s own memoirs, the film shows the societal inequalities and frustrations breaking their way into this classroom, leading to, relatively speaking, devastating consequences. As far away from the usual Hollywood glamorisation of ghetto kids being saved by one inspirational teacher, The Class is a resonant and powerful film experience, a film where a whole bunch of individual notes and motifs are collected to become a symphony by the end.

François is a teacher in a poor Parisien school, where there is considerable ethnic mixing and frustration. The students are just as likely to argue with each other about Mali vs. Morocco in the upcoming African Football Cup, as they are to challenge François in class over the uselessness of the imperfect subjunctive. As the film progresses, these petty battles build up. François moves from being seen as an idealistic and challenging individual to a petty, bullying and above all clueless individual. Perhaps he’s all of these things – he’s a wonderful creation, and his behaviour in the film’s narrative climax adds considerable complexity to the character. The confrontation between François and Souleymane works wonderfully because François doesn’t get why Souleymane reacted the way he did, even in the aftermath of the event – it wasn’t to do with skanks, it was to do with a much more cruel comment François had made.

As a result there is considerable tension even in the everyday dialogue. The teachers’ more refined French and the students’ lackadaisical slang constantly shift the terrain. The old-school teaching methods seem to jar with the more multi-cultural France – François is asked his opinion from a history teacher which ancien régime book to teach and whether Voltaire would work, while the kids in class rail against the fact François uses traditional French names in his examples rather more inclusive names. And as the outside world inevitably seeps in – parental expectations, ingrained racism, student confusion and frustrations, self-preservation – it’s almost impossible to believe that a classroom could ever pretend to be a sealed place of learning.

Played by non-professionals, the acting vibrates with a rare sense of realism. The character arcs and behaviour feel entirely plausible, and the children’s dialogue has a convincing charge. Aesthetically the film is restrained and low-key – shuddering from quick close-up to close-up, and emphasising the cinéma-vérité feel of the film. (The film’s closest cousins are films like Abdel Kechiche’s L’Esquive and even Frederick Wiseman’s High School). It’s a talky film, perhaps even more theatrical than filmic, but the narrative’s eddies gain some emotional power. François finishes the film asking them “what did you learn?” A more apt question should have been someone asking him, “what did you learn?”