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A Stand and Deliver-style inspirational drama where students from the rough Paris suburbs find their lives upended by memories of the Holocaust, Once in a Lifetime (Les Heritiers) is a well-intentioned, occasionally moving but far too loosely helmed effort from French producer-director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (Bowling). Based on a true story, the film features a few undeniably powerful moments – particularly when an Auschwitz survivor tells his tale to a classroom – yet never develops into a veritable narrative, with direction that lacks any real sense of vision.
Released fairly wide at home, Lifetime could score box office points for its timeliness, including scenes of young French Muslims coming face to face with the atrocities of WWII. But its failure to build a sustainable dramatic arc will hinder appeal overseas, where the movie might attract some attention at Jewish and Francophone festivals.
Set at the Lycee Leon Blum in the working-class banlieue of Creteil, the script – co-written by 21-year-old Adhmed Drame, who also plays one of the lead roles – was inspired by Anne Angles, a motivational history teacher who forced her unruly class of juniors to participate in the annual Concours national de la Resistance et de la Deportation (National Contest of Resistance and Deportation). Required to hand in a creative project on the theme of “Children and Teenagers under the Nazi Regime,” the group of mixed students – many of Islamic faith – gradually learned to overcome their prejudices, banding together in the name of tolerance and remembrance.
That’s pretty much how things play out in Mention-Schaar’s unfocused and anticlimactic recreation, which often takes the guise of a TV docudrama, making one wish that a camera crew had been recording things as they actually happened in the past. Instead, the filmmakers give us lots of shapeless sequences meant to convey the kind of fly-on-the-wall realism found in Laurent Cantet’s The Class, with a cast of rowdy but likeable pupils – headed by the charming Malik (Drame) and the volatile Melanie (Noemie Merlant) – curbing their anti-Semitism at the hands of their dedicated professor (played by Robert Guediguian regular Ariane Ascaride).
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Subplots involving puppy loves, schoolyard grudges, Jewish neighbors and a recent Muslim convert (Mohamed Seddiki) are tossed into the mix but never fully developed, even if the performances tend to be convincing all around. But Mention-Schaar and regular DP Myriam Vinocour rely way too much on multiple cameras and handheld coverage to capture events, resulting in a movie that never displays a true point of view as it tries to tackles themes that merit more substantial treatment.
Needless to say, there are two sequences that make Lifetime memorable, and will surely get the waterworks flowing among audience members. The first involves a visit to Paris’ Shoah Memorial, where the class studies evidence of the Nazi genocide, including photos of French children deported to the concentration camps. The second features survivor Leon Zyguel, who movingly speaks about the ordeals he faced as a 15-year-old deportee to Auschwitz. It’s a scene that’s rendered simply and effectively, with the director cutting between Zyguel’s monologue and the teary reactions of the students, revealing how the Holocaust still resonates on faces far removed from its horrors.
Production companies: Loma Nasha Films, Vendredi Film, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, UGC, France 2 Cinema, Orange Studio
Cast: Ariane Ascaride, Ahmed Drame, Noemie Merlant, Genevieve Mnich, Stephane Bak
Director: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Screenwriter: Ahmed Drame, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar
Producer: Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, Pierre Kubel
Executive producer: Pascal Ralite
Director of photography: Myriam Vinocour
Production designer: Anne-Charlotte Vimont
Costume designer: Isabelle Mathieu
Editor: Benoit Quinon
Casting directors: Marie-France Michel, Christophe Istier
Sales: TF1 International
No rating, 105 minutes
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