The Class gets top marks at Cannes

The French film The Class has grabbed the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival in France.

The French film The Class has grabbed the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival in France.

French director Laurent Cantet, centre, poses with students from a Paris junior high school as he wins the Palme d'Or for best film, The Class, in Cannes. ((Francois Mori/Associated Press))

The gritty drama chronicling a year in the life of a junior high class in a rough Paris neighbourhood got top honours at Sunday's awards gala.

The win marked the first time a French movie had garnered the top prize at Cannes since Maurice Pialat won with Under Satan's Sun in 1987.

Directed by Laurent Cantet, the improvisational style of the film was further boosted by the fact it uses real students and teachers.

The film, seen on the last night of the 12-day festival, was greeted with cheers after its screening.

Cantet, joined on the stage with his young actors, said he wanted to make a film that was "a reflection of French society — multiple, many-faceted [and] complex."

The Class, also known as Entre Les Murs, is based on an autobiographical novel by François Begaudeau, who plays himself as a young French teacher. The film has been described as both tragic and comic, exploring themes of race, the generation gap, truth and prejudice.

Del Toro's Che given acting prize

American actor and director Sean Penn headed this year's feature film jury, which included director Alfonso Cuaron, actress Natalie Portman and writer/director Marjane Satrapi.

Penn hailed The Class as "an amazing, amazing film."

Cantet's movie beat out 21 other films, including Canadian Atom Egoyan's Adoration and the Canadian/Brazilian production of José Saramago's novel, Blindness.
Benicio del Toro holds the best actor award for his role in the film Che, directed by Steven Soderbergh. ((Francois Mori/Associated Press))

"There was a field of such powerful, emotional, moving movies and performances," said Penn after the ceremony.

"There were so many times that we thought it just can't get better."

Egoyan's Adoration, about a teen whose classroom story about his Arab father causes an internet debate, did capture the Ecumenical Jury Prize on Saturday for promoting spiritual values. The jury praised the film for helping to "re-evaluate existing clichés about … that which is foreign in our own culture and religion."

The Toronto filmmaker won the same award in 1997 for The Sweet Hereafter.

Also in the running for the Palme d'Or was Steven Soderbergh's four-hour epic, Che, Clint Eastwood's L'Echange (The Changeling) starring Angelina Jolie, the acclaimed Waltz With Bashir from Israel and Walter Salles' Linha de Passe.

Puerto Rican actor Benecio Del Toro picked up a best actor trophy for playing the title role in Che while Brazilian Sandra Corveloni was awarded best actress for her role in Linha de Passe.

"I'd like to dedicate this to the man himself, Che Guevara," Del Toro told the audience on Sunday.  The 41-year-old nabbed a best supporting actor Oscar in Soderbergh's 2000 drug drama, Traffic.

Meanwhile, Sergey Dvortsevoy's Tulpan from Kazakhstan captured a secondary competition called "Un Certain Regard."  Tulpan concerns an aspiring shepherd who must get married before he can enter his chosen trade but is refused by the only prospective bride because she thinks his ears are too big.

Other winners included:

  • Grand Prix: Gomorrah directed by Matteo Garrone.
  • Best Director:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Three Monkeys.
  • Jury Prize: Il Divo directed by Paolo Sorrentino.
  • Best Screenplay: Lorna's Silenceby Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
  • Camera d'Or: Hunger by Steve McQueen.
  • Best Short FilmMegatron directed by Marian Crisan.