CANNES, France – The French film "The Class," a frank tale about classroom life using real students and teachers at a junior high school, won top honors Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival.
Directed by Laurent Cantet, "The Class" ("Entre les Murs") was the first French film to win the main prize, the Palme d'Or, at Cannes since "Under Satan's Sun" in 1987. The docudrama was shot in a raw, improvisational style to chronicle the drama that unfolds over one school year.
The win was a unanimous decision among the nine-member Cannes jury, said Sean Penn, who headed the panel.
"The movie that we wanted to make had to resemble French society, had to be multifaceted, a bit teeming, complex, and had to sometimes portray frictions that the film didn't try to erase," Cantet said.
Italian films won the second-place grand prize and third-place jury prize. Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah," a study of the criminal underworld in Naples, took the grand prize, while Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo," a lively portrait of former Premier Giulio Andreotti, won the jury award.
Benicio Del Toro won the best-actor prize for "Che," Steven Soderbergh's four-hour-plus epic about Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. Presented as two films, "Che" follows Guevara and Fidel Castro's triumphant guerrilla campaign to overthrow Cuba's government in the late 1950s and Guevara's downfall and execution after trying to foment a similar rebellion in Bolivia in the 1960s.
Del Toro, who co-starred in Penn's "21 Grams," also won in a unanimous jury vote, Penn said.
"I'd like to dedicate this to the man himself, Che Guevara," said Del Toro. He also thanked Soderbergh, "who got up every day, forced me to this. ... He was there pushing it, and he pushed all of us."
Soderbergh directed Del Toro to the supporting-actor Oscar for 2000's "Traffic."
Sandra Corveloni was chosen as best actress for "Linha de Passe," in which she plays the mother of four brothers struggling to make better lives for themselves in a Brazilian slum. It was her first role in a feature film.
Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan was named best director for "Three Monkeys," which centers on a father who takes the rap for his employer's crime in exchange for financial support for his wife and son, only to have the scheme backfire amid bitter repercussions.
Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners of the Palme d'Or, received the screenplay prize for "Lorna's Silence," about an immigrant woman who enters a sham marriage to gain Belgian citizenship.
The prize for a film by a first-time director went to British filmmaker Steve McQueen's "Hunger," set at a Northern Ireland prison where IRA volunteer Bobby Sands and other inmates seeking Irish independence staged a hunger strike in 1981.
The Cannes jury awarded special prizes to Clint Eastwood, who directed the competition film "Changeling," and Catherine Deneuve, who appeared in two films at Cannes this year.
Eastwood was shut out for key prizes with "Changeling," his warmly received missing-child drama starring Angelina Jolie.
Eastwood, who delivered two best-picture and director Academy Award recipients with "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby," has never won top honors at Cannes after five times in competition there since 1985.
Jury president Penn won the best-actor Oscar for Eastwood's "Mystic River," which was shut out for prizes at Cannes five years ago.
"There was a field of such powerful, emotional, moving movies, performances. There was so many times that we thought, it just can't get better," Penn said.
Critics judged the Cannes lineup more harshly, however. While Cannes presented few outright bombs this time, critics found the films a bit tepid.
Last year's competition included such films as Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men," which went on to win the best-picture Academy Award, and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's animated coming-of-age tale "Persepolis," which was nominated for the animation Oscar.
A film from Kazakhstan, Sergey Dvortsevoy's "Tulpan," won a secondary competition called "Un Certain Regard." "Tulpan" is the story of an aspiring shepherd on the isolated Kazakh steppes who must wed before he can enter his chosen trade but is refused by the only prospective bride because she thinks his ears are too big.
Bosnian director Aida Begic's "Snow," a drama about villagers struggling with the decision to leave their war-ravaged town, won top honors in another Cannes competition overseen by critics.
After the awards ceremony, the festival closed with the premiere of Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?", starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and Penn in the tale of a fading Hollywood producer trying to rejuvenate his career amid personal and professional crises.
"What Just Happened?" came full circle: A year ago, Levinson and his collaborators were at Cannes filming scenes for the movie.