(Les Choristes)

A short time ago the French gave us the documentary “To Be and To Have,” a wonderful picture of life in the Auvergne countryside of contemporary France.  And now we have a feature film “The Chorus,” set in the same region of Auvergne .  

I can think of only a handful of movies having to do with school that are really good.  There’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Up the Down Staircase,” “A Little Princess,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody,” and a few others.  

The French, especially Francois Truffaut, are especially good at this kind of storytelling.  The classroom scenes in “The 400 Blows” and Truffaut’s later film “Small Change” capture what it’s like to be a child in an adult world.  And we can’t forget Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants,” set during the Nazi occupation, some twelve years or so before "Les Choristes."

I’m afraid if I were to summarize this movie you’d think it a sentimental cliché, and though the storyline is somewhat predictable it is firmly rooted in the soil and esprit of post-war France when the occupation was still fresh in many people's minds.  The story is told in flashback:  two older men read a diary of their days in a boarding school for wayward boys back in the 50s.  A newly hired teacher arrives, a humble man with a gift of compassion, a rare commodity in this institution.  He’s also an amateur musician, a composer of choral music, and so he forms a chorus to give the boys a structure and a sense of purpose. 


What makes this movie so good are first the performances, particularly that of Gerard Jugnot as the teacher, and  François Berléand the severe Dickensian headmaster.  The choral music, most of which is original, reflects the surrounding countryside, a place I would characterize as beauty tinged with sadness.  The one surprise for me was to learn that the lead singer Pierre Morhange (played by the young actor Jean-Baptiste Maunier) does his own singing.  And it is breathtaking.  

This movie could turn into a syrupy story, but the acting, music, Christophe Barratier's direction, the photography and pacing are just so good that you get caught up in whole enterprise.  It’s hard not to be moved by the plight of the young boys and their kindly teacher.  

This movie was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film.  It is in French with full subtitles.   

Rated PG-13 for some language, sexual references and violence.