Les Héritiers – Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar

UnknownFor her third stint in the director’s chair Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar has again plunged into a story based on a real event to deliver Les Héritiers,  one of the best films of the year.  After the social unrest depicted in Bowling, Les Héritiers uses the backdrop of the Holocaust to call for racial and religious tolerance while at the same time sharply criticising the French education system.   French schools are shown to actively encourage teachers to concentrate on the brighest and most able pupils to the detriment of the less studious, but equally capable, youngsters.  Mention-Schaar has pulled off a delicate balancing act between the emotions stirred by the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of the students living in a world full of confusing religious and cultural constraints.

Ariane Ascaride is Madame Gueguen, a teacher with 20 years experience, who starts the academic year in front of a class of unmotivated, unruly, and at times violent, Year 11 (10th grade) pupils. On her own admission, she loves her job and is determined to find a way to inspire these pupils to take an interest in their own education.  In the face of opposition from the head of the school, she enters the class in a national history compeition which examines the plight of children and adolescents deported to Nazi concentration camps during the second world war.  Led by Madame Gueguen, the students overcome their initial indifference and discover a real sense of purpose.
From the outset, Mention-Schaar makes it clear the film is not about the Holocaust itself, but the lessons to be drawn from that dark period in modern history. Les Heritiers‘ opening scene shows a young muslim women denied access to the school because she refuses to take off the islamic headscarf, the hijab.  And Gueguen’s class is itself an example of the diversity of French schools and the challenges facing teachers with classes made up of pupils from numerous ethnic and religious origins.  Mention-Schaar’s film astutely avoids rhetoric to show the effect one genuine, caring, intelligent teaching professional can have.
Shot mainly within school walls and using a mixed cast of amateur and professional actors, the film has a semi-documentary feel which adds to its authenticity.  The classroom scenes are exercices in controlled chaos which is brought to an abrupt halt when the students listen first-hand to the real experiences of Léon Zyguel who was deported to the camps aged 15.  It’s an emotionally charged meeting and one of the film’s most intensely moving scenes.  Ascaride is magnifient as Madame Gueguen. A no nonsense, naturally authoritative figure who leads from behind. Les Héritiers vibrates with genuine emotion and is never mawkish or manipulative.  Films with a positive message have been thin on the ground this year in French cinema, and Les Héritiers is a welcome breath of fresh air.

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