April 12, 2005 -- “Les Choristes” (The Chorus) is a French language film that is kind of a cross between “Mr. Holland's Opus” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” It is neither upbeat, nor downbeat, but somewhere in between. It is based on a 1945 French film, “The Cage of Nightingales” (La Cage aux rossingols). If it were an American film, it would build to the drama of a big music competition at the end, a typical sports cliché, but it doesn't go that direction at all. This film is built on interpersonal relationships and a struggle for human dignity and justice in a corrupt system.
Teacher Clément Mathieu (played by Gérard Jugnot) arrives at a French reform school, “Fond De L’Etang,” which means “rock bottom,” in 1949. The movie was filmed at Chateau Ravel, a medieval castle in Puy-de-Dome Province. Mathieu is desperate for a job in a country still reeling from the effects of war and enemy occupation or he wouldn't be there. A less-than-successful musician and teacher, he has given up on music. The students are an unruly mob who break into his apartment and steal his briefcase. He has great difficulty keeping any kind of order in the classroom and is threatened with dismissal by the school's harsh headmaster, Rachin (Francois Berléand), who favors corporal punishment and solitary confinement. Things get even worse when the worst bad boy of all, Mondain (Grégory Gatignol) is transferred to the school from a facility for the criminally insane. Not only is he cruel, but he is a bully, and larger than the other boys.
Mathieu hears the boys singing one day and he is inspired to form a choir. He discovers that one of the boys, Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier, who does his own singing in the film) has the voice of an angel, and a face to match. He becomes the soloist in a top-notch boy's choir, whose fame travels beyond the walls of the school. A special concert is formed for the school's benefactor and her friends. The success of the choir inspires Mathieu to resume his musical career and begin composing songs for the choir. Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart. Mathieu is in a constant struggle with Rachin to maintain the choir and some form of compassion and justice at the school. His attempts to use kindness to help the boys are constantly being undermined by Rachin's brutality and that of some of the other teachers. Rachin's brutality plants bitter seeds which will eventually come back to haunt him and the school.
Much of the power of the film revolves around the relationship between Mathieu, his students and his fellow teachers and others at the school. This dynamic relationship is constantly changing. Another relationship is between Mathieu and Pierre Morhange's beautiful mother, Violette (Marie Bunel). Mathieu is attracted to Violette, and at the same time tries to repair the broken relationship between mother and son. None of these relationships follow a predictable path. Even the school's headmaster, Rachin, is not predictable. In one scene, he does the totally unexpected and decides to play soccer with the students. The story has a lot of unexpected twists and turns, including one at the very end of the film. The story is told in flashback, so we can see what happened to two of the boys in the film. This film rates a B.
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