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Singing in Français:

Sasha Stone Mirror film critic The Chorus — Les Choristes in its native language — was a big hit when it was released in France last year.  Here in the U.S., of course, all it took was a few uninspired film critics to put it in the overlooked pile.  But, helped along by the shrewd Miramax Oscar campaigners, The Chorus was selected as one of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language film.  Should the film win at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, it’ll achieve the momentum it needs to reach a wider audience here. The Chorus is the kind of picture our filmmakers don’t make anymore.  Our tastes have been too dumbed down — probably because the only films that make money are those that appeal to masses of tweens who have money to burn. American audiences rarely find their way to foreign films, apparently because they “don’t like to read” when they go to the movies.  And film critics, evidently, only like to read at the movies if they’re reading something very, very highbrow and obscure.  These are gross generalizations, and forgive me for sounding bitter; it’s just a crazy, inexplicable thing to see a wonderful film like The Chorus written off by American critics as if it were Disney’s latest made-for-TV pap.  The only prayer a film like this has of reaching a wider audience is if critics review it well.  But critics these days seem to only like a handful of films, and all of them seem to like the same handful of films — so The Chorus is out.  It tells the story of a supervisor and teacher, Clément (Gérard Jugnot), brought into an orphan boys’ school in which discipline translates into cruel abuse.  In the film, the teacher discovers there are  ways of communicating with disconnected and troubled boys other than locking them up in a dark room for four hours or flogging them with a leather strap.  Not only does he try to reach them with kinder words, but he teaches them the gift of song. While it might seem a cheap imitation of films like Mr. Holland’s Opus or Dead Poet’s Society, this film wasn’t made to make a beloved hero of its star.  On the contrary, he’s painted as a schlub no one would look twice at.  When a woman does enter the scene, and he sets his sights on her, it’s clear that — no matter what stature he’s achieved at the school — in society, he can’t ever become what a woman like that would want. Moreover, the school hires him because the people in charge figure he’s already washed up.  And what he does for the kids garners no recognition.  Okay, they appreciate him, but no big crowds applaud him, no one awards him with a plaque.  He simply drifts in and out, making his own small contribution to the world.  There are two roads troubled kids usually take – one is the route of rebellion and sometimes crime and violence, the other is to defy the odds and make something of themselves.  When a child realizes that art can actually set him or her free, wondrous things can happen.  Here, a young boy with a powerful voice is plucked out of misery and into a life of glory and appreciation by a teacher who has the ability to recognize him – and his talent. The Chorus also poses an underlying question —- whether it’s better to be a snitch than it is to keep a secret. In the film, snitching eventually turns into naming names before a committee.  In the world of the film, it is better to keep information from the enemy: the evil headmaster who doesn’t have a clue how to treat children. Mostly, though, The Chorus is a fairly straightforward story of one man’s courage and how it affects the lives of a few boys.  It isn’t overly sentimental, nor does it require a powerful ending to a painful situation.  In the end, the film fails to have an entirely satisfying effect, which may indeed be its intent. On the other hand, The Chorus bears thoughtful examination where the subject of disciplining children, especially unruly “lost causes” like most of these boys are, is concerned.  There really can’t be too many films about tolerance and love in the world — whether they dazzle the films critics in this country or not.

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