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Preaching from the choir 

Gérard Jugnot plays Clément Mathieu, a music teacher with the patience of Job and a love for mistreated rapscallions, in the French hit Les Choristes.

In place of educational reform, 'Les Choristes' offers one likable martyr

Woeful combat films are society's way of offering penance for making war. Platoon atones for gruesome deaths and mangled lives. And sentimental dramas that celebrate the heroism of dedicated teachers seem to abound when actual educators are forced to struggle with diminished resources and respect. For some, buying a ticket to Stand and Deliver bears sufficient witness to their sympathy for the plight of teachers and students in underfunded schools.

In last year's To Be and To Have, Nicolas Philibert saluted the patience and compassion of an extraordinary teacher laboring in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. Jean Vigo's 1933 Zero for Conduct is a classic account of student rebellion against the tyrants who run a repressive boarding school. Combining both, director Christophe Barratier tells the story of one teacher who makes a difference in the lives of students trapped in a despotic institution that deserves to be torched, as it is at the end.

When Clément Mathieu (Jugnot) arrives to take up his new teaching job near Lyons, he encounters a curly-haired tyke standing by the gate of the boarding school. Asked what he is doing, the child replies that he is waiting for his father to pick him up on Saturday. It is not Saturday, he is an orphan, and Pépinot is one of many little boys lost within a hellish enclave that passes for a pedagogical institution. Called Fond de l'Etang (the bottom of the pond), Mathieu's new place of employment is the bottom of the educational barrel, a school for difficult children run by an embittered martinet named Rachin (Berléand). Under the principle of "action-reaction," the callous principal administers swift and brutal punishment for any infraction of his rules. "You're an incompetent, wicked man," Mathieu is eventually able to tell him to his face.

The Chorus (Les Choristes)

Dir. Christophe Barratier; writ. Barratier, Philippe Lopes-Curval; feat. Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, Marie Bunel (PG-13)
Though initially wary of antagonizing Rachin, balding, sweet-faced Mathieu slowly gains the trust of the students, who, demoralized by the penal conditions, have become unruly and dangerous. Using the power of music, he tames the skittish savages, except for one incorrigible sociopath. A disappointed composer, Mathieu organizes the boys into a choir and teaches them to sing so euphoniously that envious Rachin claims credit for the accomplishment. One boy in particular, Pierre Morhange (Maunier), is blessed with the voice of an angel. Lest a viewer share another teacher's suspicion that pedophilia prompts Mathieu's special interest in his pupils, the screenplay directs him to develop a crush on Morhange's unmarried mother.

Mathieu's musical miracle occurs during the first half of 1949, and the film presents it as a flashback from the present. Morhange has grown up to become a world-renowned conductor, and, in a clumsy structural strategy, he suddenly comes across the diary that Mathieu kept during his stay at Fond de l'Etang. "What am I doing here?" he writes in the desolate chamber he occupies adjacent to the room in which the boys all sleep. The Chorus provides an answer, from January through the summer.

Aside from its enchanting music, the film offers the simple fantasy of redemption through instruction. It is sweet to believe that a single saintly man could and would make something special even out of dead-end kids. If this film were food, some might claim for it the savor - and sustenance - of fried potatoes. I call it Mr. Chips.

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May 20, 2020

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