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'The Class' wins top prize

It's unanimous for Laurent Cantet's film. Two Italian entries, 'Gomorra' and 'Il Divo,' also earn plaudits.

May 26, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Movie Critic

CANNES, France -- What a difference 21 years makes.

In 1987, the last time a French film won the Palme d'Or, the audience at the Palais du Festival was so angry at the choice of "Under the Sun of Satan" that it hooted furiously and the director, Maurice Pialat, yelled right back.

But when Laurent Cantet's masterful "Entre les Murs" won the top prize at the Festival de Cannes on Sunday night -- one of only two unanimous votes, jury president Sean Penn revealed -- the audience erupted in ecstatic rhythmic applause, which only increased as most of the 24 middle-school students who made up the cast joined the director onstage.

The last of the competition films to be screened, "Entre les Murs" (which literally means "between the walls," though it's being translated as "The Class") manages to touch on a surprising number of serious personal and societal issues by focusing on one year in the life of a class in the 20th arrondissement, one of Paris' poorest neighborhoods.

Based on a book by teacher Francois Begaudeau (who stars), this film's considerable emotional impact is especially powerful because it seems to come out of nowhere. Best known for 2001's "Time Out," Cantet has always focused on the realities of contemporary life. "What I'm interested in is individuals facing a very complex world," he said at his news conference. "I take an interest in what's happening around me."

Aside from France, it was the national cinema of Italy that did best at the awards, taking two top prizes. The Grand Prix, the festival's runner-up award, went to Matteo Garrone's involving "Gomorra," a film that offers a panoramic view of the suffocating stranglehold the Mafia-like Camorra organization has over Naples. Taken from Roberto Saviano's bestselling book (which has been translated into 33 languages), "Gomorra" expertly intertwines five separate stories that insert us into this pitiless world from which no escape seems possible.

One of "Gomorra's" actors, Toni Servillo, is also the star of Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo," which took the Prix du Jury. This is an arresting, visually jazzy picture about the unlikeliest subject: the sphinx-like former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Joining head-turning style with an intense focus on the intricacies of Italian political life, this is a fearless, invigorating film.

While some observers thought Servillo might get the best actor award, it went, in the jury's other unanimous choice, to Benicio Del Toro, the only universally praised element of Steven Soderbergh's hefty 4-hour, 28-minute two-part biopic "Che." Del Toro, who was also greeted with great applause, said he'd "like to dedicate this to the man himself, Che Guevara."

The best actress award, a major surprise even to the filmmakers, went to Sandra Corveloni, who played a heroic mother trying to raise four fatherless boys in the slums of Sao Paulo in "Linha de Passe," directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas.

Special prize

The jury also created a special 61st Festival Prize and gave it to two veterans doing work that Penn characterized as "so rare and so important." One recipient was Catherine Deneuve, star of Arnaud Desplechin's marvelous "A Christmas Tale," a multi-generational drama centered on a gorgeously fractious family that comes together for a memorable Christmas-week reunion. Unexpected but still made squarely in the French humanistic tradition, this is a film you don't want to end, not because the characters are so happy but because they are so human and so alive.

The other recipient was Clint Eastwood for directing "Changeling," a dark yet hopeful drama made with his trademark assurance and storytelling skill. Eastwood was not present to accept his award, while Deneuve said she was "very touched" by hers.

The festival's remaining two awards went to a pair of Cannes veterans. The best screenplay prize was given to Belgium's Dardenne brothers for their "Lorna's Silence," about a young Albanian woman wrestling with her conscience. And the best director award went to Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan for his formally beautiful "Three Monkeys." Taking the Camera d'Or for best first film was "Hunger," a look at the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland directed by Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen.

The non-winning competition film most deserving of recognition was the Israeli animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir," directed by Ari Folman. Dealing with Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in an often surreal way, this haunted, haunting film is aesthetically adventurous and passionately committed to the cause of peace.

Knockout films

As always with Cannes, some of the most satisfying films were not found in the official competition. Perhaps the most out and out enjoyable was Bent Hamer's small wonder, the luminous and deliciously funny "O'Horten," a fine successor to an earlier Hamer creation, the knockout "Kitchen Stories."

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