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FILMS / REVIEWS France / Italy

Review: Maria Montessori


- Léa Todorov sheds light upon the genesis of the Montessori approach in a bold and novelistic first feature film about disability, difference and feminism at the beginning of the 20th century

Review: Maria Montessori
Leïla Bekhti and Jasmine Trinca in Maria Montessori

"Degenerates who are threatening the pedigree of our country", "we can’t put them with the others and they cost a lot of money", "your performing monkeys". These are the kinds of comments which Maria Montessori had to contend with from the directors of the teaching establishment where she worked (in the shadow of a man) in Rome in 1900. But the young Italian doctor was intent on proving to her detractors that the people who were referred to as "idiots" or "deficient" at the time, and who are now known as "neuro-divergent" or children "with disabilities", could integrate society. Hers was a battle against prejudice which she led in tandem with a desire to liberate women from the many, many difficulties associated with marital subjugation and with the hitherto unidentified patriarchy.

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It’s this initial trajectory of an avant-gardist woman whose teaching methods would come to gain traction across the world (there are now 35,000 Montessori schools in the world) that French filmmaker Léa Todorov has decided to elucidate in her first feature film Maria Montessori [+see also:
film profile
, which will be released in French cinemas on 13 March, courtesy of Ad Vitam - a novelistic period film whose overarching themes still resonate today, especially the fragile desire to move beyond the social shame associated with difference.

"I hadn’t managed to produce a beautiful baby". For Lili d’Alengy (Leïla Bekhti), a Parisian courtesan perfectly at her ease in games and lounges of seduction, the reappearance of her daughter Tina (Rafaelle Sonneville-Caby), at nine years of age, is nothing short of a catastrophe. Scared of what people will say, she flees to Rome with her child who she introduces as "the daughter of my cousin, an idiot". There, she’s told about an institution which looks after “cases” like hers, and she meets Maria Montessori (the charismatic Jasmine Trinca) who manages the establishment with her partner Giuseppe (Raffaele Esposito). Little by little, these two women, who each bear their own psychological burdens relating to motherhood, get to know one another and form an alliance in a world where the premises of a feminist and pedagogical revolution are taking shape, which doesn’t come without hopes, obstacles and sacrifices…

Starring children and teenagers with real motor or cognitive delays and sensory issues, the film delivers on its mission of breaking down biases, and the director (who wrote the screenplay) excels in capturing the learning curve which led to Maria Montessori developing the idea of a broader teaching approach based on the children themselves deciding upon the content of their learning - an inversion of traditional ideas which was also reflected in the realisation – nothing short of revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century - of the need for "women to become bosses of, not slaves to motherhood". These many fascinating subjects and more are broached in this promising debut feature film, even if it does struggle to find its bearings in the straitjacket of the period genre.

Maria Montessori is produced by Geko Films in co-production with Italian firm Tempesta. World sales are entrusted to Indie Sales.

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(Translated from French)

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