First French film to nab Palme d'Or since 1987

Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” (“Entre les murs”), an evocation of contemporary society as seen through a year’s events in a Paris junior high school classroom, went to the top of the class by winning the Palme d’Or at the 61st Cannes Film Festival.

Prevailing by a unanimous decision of the jury, it became the first French film to cop the festival’s main prize since “Under Satan’s Sun” in 1987.

Runner-up award, the Grand Prix, went to “Gomorrah,” Italian director Matteo Garrone’s unsparing look at organized crime in Naples, while Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the directing prize for “Three Monkeys,” an intense drama of a family pulled apart by crime and suspicion. The Turkish helmer took the Grand Prix in 2003 for “Distant.”

Helping Italy to its best Cannes in many a season, Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” a caustic and stylish look at former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, nabbed the jury prize.

Benicio Del Toro drew the actor nod for the title role in “Che,” the unconventional Che Guevara biopic that he also co-produced, while little-known Brazilian thesp Sandra Corveloni won the actress prize playing the pregnant single mother of four boys in Sao Paulo’s slums in “Linha de passe.”

Two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne took the screenplay prize for “Lorna’s Silence,” a drama about a young female immigrant in Belgium under intense pressure from several men.

The victory of “The Class” was received with great enthusiasm by the crowd inside the Palais on the blustery Sunday evening. Incredibly, other than for “Satan’s Sun,” purely French productions have won Cannes’ top prize only two other times since 1960: “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” in 1964 and, in a shared award, Henri Colpi’s “Une aussi longue absence” (The Long Absence) in 1961.

In announcing the Palme at the occasionally boisterous televised awards ceremony that featured a few minor gaffes, jury president Sean Penn called “The Class” an “amazing, amazing film” and further extolled it at the subsequent jury press conference, calling it a “virtually seamless film. All the performances, magic. All the writing, magic. It just touched us so deeply.”

In the distribution of awards and the jurors’ comments, there was a feeling that the nine judges had taken their jobs very seriously and considered the 22 contenders from all angles.

At the press conference, jurors suggested that there were several other films they rated highly — specifically, Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (locally known as “The Exchange,” the English translation of its French title), Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” and Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir.”

To cover the first two of these, the jury created something called the “special prize of the 61st Cannes Film Festival” to give to Eastwood, who did not appear to collect it, and to Catherine Deneuve, one of the stars of “A Christmas Tale,” who took the stage to receive the equivalent of a life achievement award.

As for Folman’s animated Israeli film of memory and combat, Penn said, “I think it’s a wonderful film,” while fellow juror Natalie Portman commented, “I think it’s testament to the amazing selection that a film as good as ‘Waltz With Bashir’ didn’t win an award.”

Not only was “Bashir” widely expected to win something, but over the weekend much industry gossip centered on the presumed likelihood of a Penn jury giving a top prize to “Che” to support maverick independent filmmaking.

“Che” did win the actor prize, but at the press conference, Penn said, “I was happy to find out that buzz means nothing, and this jury is entirely uninfluenced.”

Other jury members were German actress Alexandra Maria Lara, French director Rachid Bouchareb, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, Iranian writer-director Marjane Satrapi, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Italian actor-director Sergio Castellitto and French actress Jeanne Balibar.

This year’s edition of Cannes was unusual in the sense that critical reactions ranged all over the map on many prominent films — raves, middling views and pans could be found for even the most prestigious titles.

In addition, just when the fest seemed to have climaxed on Wednesday with “Che,” a prime example of a film provoking all kinds of reactions, along came two surprise hits, “Il Divo” and the eventual winner, “The Class,” to provide a final electric charge and end the fest on a high note.

PRIZES OF THE 61ST CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

INTL. COMPETITION JURY PRIZES
Palme d’Or
“The Class” (dir. Laurent Cantet, France)
Grand Prix
“Gomorrah” (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
Special Prizes of the 61st Cannes Festival
Catherine Deneuve (“A Christmas Tale”) and Clint Eastwood (“Changeling”)
Director
Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Three Monkeys,”Turkey-France-Italy)
Jury Prize
“Il Divo” (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
Actor
Benicio Del Toro (“Che,” Spain-France)
Actress
Sandra Corveloni (“Linha de passe,” Brazil-France)
Screenplay
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Lorna’s Silence,” Belgium-France-Italy-Germany)

SHORT FILMS JURY PRIZES
Palme d’Or
“Megatron” (Marian Crisan, Romania)
Special Mention
“Jerrycan” (Julius Avery, Australia)

UN CERTAIN REGARD JURY AWARDS
Main Prize
“Tulpan”(Sergey Dvortsevoy, Germany)
Jury Prize
“Tokyo Sonata” (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Heart Throb Jury Prize
“Cloud 9″(Andreas Dresen, Germany)
The Knockout of Un Certain Regard
“Tyson” (James Toback, U.S.)
The Prize of Hope
“Johnny Mad Dog”(Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, France)

OTHER JURY AWARDS
Camera d’Or
“Hunger” (Steve McQueen, U.K.);
Special Mention
“Everybody Dies But Me”(Valeria Gai Germanika, Russia)
Cinefondation Awards
“Anthem”(Elad Keidan, Israel) – first prize; “Forbach”(Claire Burger, France) – second prize; “Stop” (Park Jae-ok, S. Korea), “Roadmarkers”(Juho Kuosmanen, Finland) – third prize, shared
Fipresci Awards:
“Delta”(Kornel Mundruczo, Hungary-Germany) – Competition; “Hunger”- Un Certain Regard; “Eldorado”(Bouli lanners, Belgium-France) – Directors’ Fortnight
Ecumenical Award
“Adoration”(Atom Egoyan, Canada-France)

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