The Cannes film festival wrapped up on Sunday after awarding its top prize to a French classroom drama with a cast of amateurs in a banner year for movies with a conscience.
In a popular choice, the jury led by actor-director Sean Penn gave the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or to The Class, featuring a multicultural cast of first-time teenage actors all plucked from the same Parisian secondary school.
The picture, shot in documentary style and based on the bestselling memoir of French teacher Francois Begaudeau, beat out 21 other contenders to claim the trophy in a year dominated by dark dramas on social ills.
“The film had to show society as a whole — it had to be diverse, teeming, complex — and it also needed to show the social tension,” said Cantet, flanked by two dozen of the pupils, as he became the first French filmmaker to win Cannes gold since 1987.
The relevance of the picture, Cantet’s fourth feature, has been pointed up by ongoing street protests by French schoolchildren and teachers against cutbacks in education.
The politically minded Penn, 47, said the nine-strong jury had chosen the Palme d’Or unanimously. “It’s simply everything you’d want a film to give you,” he said.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott said Cantet had attacked a familiar storyline “with freshness and precision, and without a trace of sentimentality”.
Penn had said at the start of the 12-day festival that the winning filmmaker would be one who “is very aware of the times in which he or she lives”. Politically potent cinema also dominated the remaining awards.
In another unanimous choice, the best actor prize went to Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro for his virtuoso performance as Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour-plus epic on the Latin American revolutionary hero.
Brazil’s Sandra Corveloni won the best actress prize for her turn as a pregnant single mother of four in Line of Passage — her first feature film, directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas.
The 43-year-old Corveloni plays weary cleaning woman Clueza whose sons battle against the odds to avoid slipping into a life of crime in a working class district of Sao Paolo. Best director honours went to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, an arthouse favourite, for his searing, visually rich family drama Three Monkeys.
The runner-up Grand Prize went to Italian drama on the corrosive influence of the mafia, Gomorrah, based on an international bestseller.
Another film about corruption in Italy, Il Divo about seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti, won the Jury Prize.
The jury surprised many by shutting out Waltz With Bashir, a first-ever animated documentary at Cannes that offered a deeply critical look at Israel’s indirect involvement in the 1982 slaughter of Palestinian refugees in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps. Lifetime achievement awards went to US actor-director Clint Eastwood, whose film The Exchange starring Angelina Jolie as a single mother whose son is kidnapped had been in competition; and French actress Catherine Deneuve, who appeared in the darkly funny competition entry A Christmas Tale.
Other highlights at 12-day Cannes came outside the competition, including the first Indiana Jones movie in two decades, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a warmly received Woody Allen comedy starring Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson.