And At Cannes, the Winner Is...

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Sean Gallup / Getty

French director Laurent Cantet stands with Cannes film festival jury president Sean Penn after winning the Palme d'Or.

Sean Penn, President of the nine-person Jury at the 61st Cannes Film Festival, stood before the 2,300 cinema swells in the Lumiere Theatre this evening and told them that the top prize was awarded "unanimously": Entre les Murs, a.k.a. The Class, Laurent Cantet's affecting portrait of a Paris junior high school teacher and his restless, demanding students. Immediately a cheer went up, as Cantet, his star Francois Begaudeau and the 24 kids in the movie swarmed onstage, beaming as if they'd all graduated summa cum laude. They kept smiling through Cantet's long, fond acceptance speech, then were joined by other cinema dignitaries — including Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Faye Dunaway — who were there as presenters. Suddenly, les enfants de Cannes were movie stars, reveling in their group closeup.

At the world's largest festival it was a very European evening. The Grand Prix (second place) and the Jury Prize (the bronze) both went to true-life Italian films: respectively, Mario Garrone's Mafia expose Gomorrah and Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, a bio-pic of controversial former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne took the Screenplay award for their immigrant crime drama The Silence of Lorna, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, from Turkey, was named Best Director (a consolation prize here) for Three Monkeys, his study of corruption within a business and a family.

Che, Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half hours detailing of Ernesto Guevara's two rebel campaigns in Cuba and Bolivia, was denied the Palme d'Or many expected, but Benicio del Toro, the film's indefatigable star, was named Best Actor. The Best Actress award went to Sandra Corveloni, who played the pregnant single mother trying to keep her poor family together in the Brazilian Linha de Passe, directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thompson. At the ceremony, Thompson revealed that Corveloni was herself pregnant and had just lost the child. She said the award would be balm to the actress.

The American films Two Lovers (very bad) and Synecdoche, New York (very good) were utterly shut out. So was Clint Eastwood's Changeling, though the Hollywood icon, who turns 78 on Saturday, received a "Special Prize of the 61st" — essentially a we're-glad-you're-still-around pat on the back. That means that, over the past 24 festivals, the old cowboy has brought five films to Cannes, and none has taken a competition prize. Another of these life-achievement citations went to Catherine Deneuve, 64, who starred in the French drama A Christmas Tale. She was there; Clint wasn't.

Eastwood, who directed Penn to an Oscar in Mystic River, and del Toro, who co-starred with Penn in 21 Grams, were the only two stars of the American film industry to be given awards. Cannes counts on Hollywood to bring glamor to the Riviera, with non-competition movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But when the Jury gets down to business, art wins out over entertainment. Indeed, for the second year in a row, not a single English-language movie was honored at Cannes.

Another surprising omission was the Israeli animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, which had critics cheering from Day Two, when it was unveiled, up to the announcement of the awards. At the post-Palmares press conference, Penn acknowledged that he wasn't pushing for Bashir, since there were so many other films that "called out and provoked us in a new way." He added, "I think it will find its audience without us," suggesting that the Jury wanted to give affirmative-action pushes to luminous films in need of the worldwide attention a Palme d'Or can bring.

For the Jury, The Class filled all their demands. It was a praiseworthy "small" film, with no professional actors, let alone stars, which showed up on the afternoon of the Competition's last day — traditionally a dumping ground — but Penn and his colleagues also saw it as a great film whose qualities could not be ignored. Penn called it "virtually a seamless film. It's everything you want film to give you." Juror Alfonso Cuaron described The Class as "high cinema you can share with a young audience."

Back in the States this weekend, young audiences (and their parents and grandparents) are flocking to Indy 4. But it would be the happiest of endings if a few of them were to discover the humor, horror and humanity in this year's Palme d'Or champ.

Congratulations, Entre les Murs! And until next year, dear readers, class dismissed.