Oh, Boys

Clichés abound in movies set in a reform school and a seminary

click to enlarge MAESTRO: Gerard Jugnot in The Chorus. - MIRAMAX
MAESTRO: Gerard Jugnot in The Chorus.

Few genres are as dripping with honey-basted cliches as stories of exceptional teachers arriving in schools to perform miraculous transformations of the previously apathetic and delinquent student body.

The genre seems harder to swallow on American shores as the country watches its public schools sink into the gutter. We have resigned ourselves to thinking only a miracle in the form of Edward James Olmos could save the nation's schoolchildren.

French drama The Chorus (Les Choristes), which many may avoid solely because of its selection among the often disreputable ranks of films nominated by their host country for Academy Award inclusion, plays into many of the conventions of this schmaltzy genre. Like Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver and Mr. Holland's Opus, the film concerns a plucky teacher who refuses to consign his students to mediocrity's ranks.

Clement (Gerard Jugnot) is the appealing star, a nicely frumpy Wallace Shawn-type with disappearing chin and dumpling face. In 1949, the failed musician takes a job at the rural reform school for children who, by American standards, never look that bad to begin with in their short pants and absence of gang colors. The school is reminiscent of the grim reformatory from the seminal French delinquency picture The 400 Blows and is pessimistically called Fond d'Etang or "Rock Bottom," a name that hardly gives the kiddies motivation to overachieve.

But Clement's salvation from apathy and despair is his love of music. He discovers an in-house choir of angels in the school's unruly children whose voices include the crystalline falsetto of Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier). Clement gets all Sound of Music on the urchins, helping them do-re-mi to self-esteem.

What The Chorus has that makes it a moderately enjoyable entry in teacher appreciation cinema is a more hard-edged view of the "before" in its feel-good makeover.

Early on, when another teacher misunderstands what Clement is doing with several students in the bathroom, he warns his new colleague in so many words that pedophilia is not on the menu. The scene suggests the potential for exploitation these schoolboys have seen before. When an older student arrives at the school with a horrific reputation, you see in his hardened, vaguely satanic attitude the traces of a lifetime of cruel treatment. Though The Chorus sticks fairly closely to the World's Best Teacher script, it attempts to draw a convincing picture of what's at stake and offer some good reasons as to why some of the children are such shits. As counterweight, there are the inevitable moments designed to pluck demonically at your heartstrings, as in the film's sickeningly sweet box-of-bonbons conclusion.

The Chorus comes with the usual stock villains. The film's Nurse Ratched is headmaster Rachin (Francois Berleand), who seems to hold his students personally responsible for his miserable station in life as a glorified prison warden.

Other school-day dramas have made math or poetry the communicative form between teacher and students, but there is more emotional heft in music, which expresses feelings not easily shoehorned into words. With their angelic voices raised together in song, The Chorus illustrates how easily children written off as demons can transform into paragons of innocence. And while math and literature serve clear educational purposes, singing, like all of the arts, serves a more abstract, less immediately measurable purpose. On one level, at least, The Chorus is subversive as a plea for the importance of the arts as a means of escape and uplift outside of utilitarian education.

-felicia feaster

Beware the first-time director with a strong sociopolitical agenda. The movie just might come off as more polemic than entertainment. Such is the case with Irish director/screenwriter John Deery's Conspiracy of Silence. At its core, the film is a meditation on celibacy in the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church - a premise with potential, but one that Deery simply does not address with cinematic finesse.

He's wedged his pet issue into a clumsy "thriller" set in small-town Ireland that involves a Church cover-up (replete with an underhanded bishop with a secret), a tenacious investigative reporter whose family takes a back seat to his ambitions, a priest's mysterious suicide, and sexual tensions among a group of particularly virile and handsome seminarians (not a nerd among them).

None of these elements rises above the level of cliché. Deery's directorial style is pedestrian, TV-movie stuff, and there's very little that's suspenseful, or for that matter thrilling, about Conspiracy of Silence. The film is thoroughly predictable, each plot development arriving with a neon signpost. Making matters worse is the director's fondness for cramming debates about celibacy into the dialogue. (He clearly supports a priest's right to marry but, to his credit, gives time to both sides of the argument.)

The movie's brightest spot is its central actor, newcomer Jonathan Forbes. He plays Daniel McLaughlin, a dedicated priest-to-be who's summarily dismissed from the institution for an alleged gay affair in a dorm room. (He's a card-carrying hetero, and walks away from a classmate's pass.) The actor's square jaw and tousled hair give him an innate sex appeal, and he performs the role with sensitivity and a quiet charisma.

Virtually all the other characters are stereotypes: Daniel's pining girlfriend (Catherine Walker), who gets the obligatory roll in the hay after he's dismissed from the seminary; Daniel's obstinate parents (his mom played by a slumming Brenda Fricker), appalled by his shaming of the family; a couple of liberal priests who take the case to the press; a jelly-spined small-town newspaper editor who kills a controversial expose about celibacy only to have a crisis of conscience; and so on and so on.

Amid this barrage of formula pops up the idea of AIDS in the priesthood. Deery suggests that this is another hot scandal within the Catholic Church, but the idea is so insufficiently developed that it emerges as little more than a red herring.

You wouldn't need the film's press notes (trumpeting, believe it or not, "ripped from today's headlines") to know that the makers of Conspiracy of Silence have high hopes of stirring controversy. They clearly want to get the Church's dander up, and have the fallout put asses in seats. But the effort is so forced that it's doubtful the movie will cause even a ripple of protest.

If the film had dealt more deftly with the notion of celibacy, and not attempted to dress it up with conventional trappings in hopes of expanding its marketability, Deery might have landed on something valuable. As it stands, Conspiracy of Silence can only be viewed as a worthy concept that was ultimately bungled.

-Eric Snider

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