CANNES, France (Reuters) - A classroom drama set in a tough Parisian school lifted the gloom in Cannes, giving the world's biggest film festival a much-needed boost after critics panned many of the main competition entries.
It was better late than never for the annual movie marathon, with "Entre Les Murs" ("The Class") screening on the penultimate day of the festival.
Loud applause and cheers after the movie was shown placed it among the favorites to win the coveted Palme d'Or for best film when Sean Penn and his eight fellow jurors hand out the awards at a glittering evening ceremony on Sunday.
The ceremony wraps up 12 days of films, interviews, red carpets and late night revelry in the Riviera resort. In town this year were Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Penelope Cruz, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford.
"The Class" is directed by Laurent Cantet and is based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau who plays himself as a young French teacher facing a sometimes rebellious class.
Shot in a "fly-on-the-wall" style, the film is at times comic, tragic and surprisingly tense and explores themes including race, the generation gap, truth and prejudice.
Before The Class, critics in Cannes had been underwhelmed by the overall standard of the 22 films in competition, with one mumbling that you could hear "the barrel being scraped" by organizers trying to fill the program.
Nonetheless there were some highlights, notably "Waltz With Bashir," an Israeli animated documentary exploring a draftee's memories of the 1982 massacre of Palestinians living in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila camps.
Also high on critics' rankings was Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood's "The Exchange," featuring Jolie as a 1920s mother who loses her son and takes on a corrupt Los Angeles police force.
Whether such a classic Hollywood production can win in Cannes, which prides itself on championing independent, innovative cinema, is unclear.
In an interview with French daily Le Monde, Penn said Cannes should do "the complete opposite to the Oscars," which reward the "consummate art of manipulation and good marketing."
He also said he had seen a "very good" selection of films, although he regretted there were not more comedies. The competition has been dominated by themes of plague, war, corruption, greed, poverty and family feud.
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys," a brooding family tragedy, has been widely admired, while another family drama, "A Christmas Tale" by France's Arnaud Desplechin, is a firm favorite among domestic experts.
Italian entry "Gomorrah" was lauded for its brave depiction of the brutal world of the Naples mafia in a drama based on a bestseller by Italian author Roberto Saviano.
Another Italian film, "Il Divo," was also lauded. It takes a satirical look at former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, depicting him as the symbol of a corrupt political system.
Two-time Palme d'Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne from Belgium are seen as contenders with "Lorna's Silence," while two of four South American entries drew praise.
In "Lion's Den" from Argentina, Martina Gusman gives a compelling performance as a pregnant woman jailed for murder whose life is transformed by her son, and "Line of Passage" from Brazil is a touching drama set in the slums of Sao Paulo.
Steven Soderbergh's two-part "Che," about the life and death of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was deemed by some as too long at over four hours, and Charlie Kaufman's oddly titled "Synecdoche, New York" baffled some viewers.
(Additional reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; editing by Andrew Roche)
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