PARIS (Reuters) - An award-winning film shot in near-documentary style brings life in a difficult Paris high school to the screen and throws the spotlight on a French education system facing mounting pressure to reform.
"Entre les Murs" ("The Class"), shot in a real school and made with a non-professional cast of pupils and teachers, won the coveted "Golden Palm" award at this year's Cannes film festival but only opens in French cinemas this week.
The film has won outstanding reviews although it has also generated criticism from some teachers and one of France's most prominent intellectual commentators, who lamented what he took to be its attitude to France's linguistic and literary heritage.
School protests over spending cuts and a series of reforms by the center-right government of President Nicolas Sarkozy have added to the film's topicality which has also been underlined by several recent controversies over teachers hitting pupils.
Director Laurent Cantet's portrayal of a restless class of teenagers in the College Francoise Dolto, most from immigrant African, Arab or West Indian families, is touching and often very funny, but unlikely to please educational traditionalists.
The class heaps scorn on their teacher's attempts to explain the intricacies of the imperfect subjunctive, answer back constantly and deride what they see as "jambon-beurre" ("ham and butter," a derogatory term for white French) attitudes.
Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, declared in Le Monde that the film "symbolizes the crisis of a civilization where the great texts no longer have a place. Including in schools."
"The Class will divide opinions," said left-wing daily Liberation in an editorial that praised the film lavishly and defended a mixed abilities schools system put in place in a wave of educational change in the 1970s.
A world away from the grand schools like the Lycee Henri IV or Condorcet, where France's intellectual elite is formed, the so-called "colleges uniques" like Francoise Dolto, were originally intended to give pupils of all backgrounds a chance.
But they have frequently been attacked as little more than educational dumping grounds that condemn pupils to mediocrity without ensuring greater overall fairness.
According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, French schools lag their peers in countries like Finland, Canada or Japan and teachers face pressure to change while also adapting to a squeeze on spending.
But government reforms that would focus on basic skills like French and maths and give parents more freedom to choose schools have been met with suspicion by many teachers, incensed by spending cuts that have seen 11,200 posts disappear this year.
Sarkozy has said he wants to reinforce traditional standards in schools and strengthen the "ecole republicaine" that helped forge the French nation in the 19th century by instilling common values into generations of pupils.
How far that model still applies in an era of mass immigration and rapid technological change has been hotly debated in France and the rowdy pupils in "The Class" amply illustrate how wide the gap between ideal and reality can be.
But despite the frequent tension and conflict, Cantet said the film tried to show wider lessons quite consistent with the republican ideal. "We try to see how this classroom can be a space where democracy and dialogue can be learned," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato