CANNES, France (Reuters) - "Entre les murs" (The Class), a film set in a tough Parisian high school, won the Palme d'Or for best picture at the Cannes festival on Sunday.
Directed by Laurent Cantet, the picture based on an autobiographical novel by Francois Begaudeau was the first French winner in Cannes since 1987.
It is likely to be a popular choice with critics, who praised its naturalistic portrayal of the energy and high tension of the classroom as well as its exploration of universal themes of race, individuality, and truth.
The Class comes at time when problems in overcrowded French schools and youth violence have become hot political issues.
"I think it would be good for all those people who claim to be able to judge youth ... in two or three aphorisms to learn something new about youth," said Begaudeau, who also plays the central teacher in the film.
"It's essentially a film for adults even though I hope young people will also enjoy the film."
The Class was one of 22 movies in the main competition in Cannes, and Sunday's glamorous red carpet prize ceremony ended 12 hectic days of screenings, interviews and late night revelry for actors, producers, directors and journalists.
Big names like Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Penelope Cruz, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford as well as sports stars Mike Tyson and Diego Maradona all trod the famous red carpet this year.
The Grand Prix runner-up prize went to Italy's "Gomorra" (Gomorrah), Matteo Garrone's hard-hitting film about the world of the Camorra Naples crime network whose empire extends from waste disposal to haute couture.
Garrone was lauded for his courage in tackling the subject, especially since the author of the bestseller on which it is based has lived under police protection for the past two years.
The second Italian competition entry, "Il Divo", a satire on the life of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, won the jury award.
A special prize was given to screen legends Catherine Deneuve and Clint Eastwood, whose film "The Exchange", starring Jolie, was in competition.
The Best Director award went to Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan for "Three Monkeys", a dark tale of family secrets.
Benicio del Toro was named Best Actor for his portrayal of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Steven Soderbergh's epic four-and-a-half hour "Che".
"I'd like to dedicate this to the man himself, Che Guevara," del Toro said.
The Best Actress award went to Sandra Corveloni, who plays an overworked mother in the popular Brazilian drama "Linha de Passe" (Line of Passage), set in the slums of Sao Paulo.
Belgium's Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have won the Palme d'Or twice but this time took away the prize for Best Screenplay for "Lorna's Silence", and Britain's Steve McQueen won the Camera d'Or, given to debut directors, for "Hunger".
The visually stunning film portrays Bobby Sands' 66-day hunger strike in 1981 which ended in his death and made him a potent symbol of opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland.
Jury president Sean Penn had been expected to favour a film with a social or political slant, and the only big surprise on the night was the fact that Israeli animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir" went unrecognised.
Critics believed the film was a contender for the top prize due to its innovative techniques and for its haunting retelling of an Israeli conscript's efforts to dig up buried memories of the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps in 1982.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
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