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Wed February 9, 2005
Typical tale of good teacher and bad pupils
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
If there's a film out there in which a teacher transforms delinquents into doctors and symphony conductors, I love every clich?d, formulaic moment. Why? Because I am a teacher as well as a critic, and I believe education and arts can transform. And so it goes for France's entry into the Oscar race with "The Chorus," a typical tale of good teacher and bad pupils set in 1949 post-war France.
The change agent is balding, unassuming new supervisor, Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot), at "Le Fond De L'Etang" ("rock bottom") school -not subtle. He teaches extracurricular singing to a rag-tag group of boys, who miraculously change from slackers to singers under his patient tutelage. So you know he's not a pervert, he is attracted to the mother of gifted boy Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier).
Unlike Robin Williams' theatrical don in "Dead Poets Society" or Meryl Streep's anxious muse in "Music of the Heart," Jugnot's Mathieu is like Bob Hoskins on tranquilizers, a weeble with a very big heart who lets some indignities and confrontations with the boys slide in order to win their souls by discovering their gifts and releasing the boys from the hostility that has been their shield against martinets such as the headmaster.
As music will do, it infuses the boarding school with a harmony evidenced years later in Morhange's success as a conductor. He reminisces with a once introverted now congenial fellow student, who presents Morhange with Mathieu's diary of their days. The film's frame is reading through the diary, a well-worn device that still works for me like a sweet Morgan Freeman voiceover. The idea that hard work can and will have its rewards is amply shown here; at the same time, however, is the genre's indulgence of total amelioration for the children, not a criminal left behind, in contradiction to most of our experiences out there.
John Jay Chapman in his letters has the last word on educating the young: "Is education of the young the whole of life? I hate the young--I'm worn out with them. They absorb you and suck you dry and are vampires and selfish brutes at best. Give me some good old rumsoaked club men . . . . "
Your rumsoaked old critic acknowledges the challenges of young people but counts some of his most blessed moments being with them. The Chorus is just such a blessing.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.