- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Long before “La Cage aux Folles,” there was a French movie titled “La Cage aux Rossignols.” Directed in 1945 by Jean Dreville, it championed a young teacher who brings hope to a grim social setting, a boys’ reformatory and orphanage, by organizing a vocal group.

About 30 years later, “Cage of Nightingales” made an indelible impression on a boarding school student named Christophe Barratier. Also a musical prodigy (classical guitar) when young, Mr. Barratier was 40 by the time he revived the pretext and time frame for his debut feature, “The Chorus” (“Les Choristes”), a deftly reinvented sentimental fable that emerged as France’s most popular movie last year and was nominated on Tuesday for an Oscar as best foreign film.

Mr. Barratier collaborated with composer Bruno Colais on all but one of the songs attributed to the movie’s protagonist, Clement Mathieu, a failed musician who has turned to pedagogy in the aftermath of World War II. An enormously winning role, it was tailor-made for the cherubic, disarming character actor Gerard Jugnot, whose numerous French hits have eluded American art-house distribution in the past.

Added to the faculty of an institution called Fond de l’Etang (figuratively, Rock Bottom), located in a castle in the Auvergne, Mathieu is repelled by the presiding martinet, Francois Berleand as a headmaster called Rachin. The movie doesn’t bother with a “rounded” view of Rachin; he’s a petty tyrant redeemed only by the integrity Mr. Berleand brings to his portrayal. Mr. Barratier is inclined to finesse cliches rather than resist them. Mathieu introduces a kinder, gentler influence by acting deferential enough to gain approval for a boys’ choir, envisioned as a fleeting triumph that nevertheless has lasting benefits.

The principal emotional beneficiaries are the wistful, lovelorn Mathieu himself and two members of the ensemble: Pierre Morhange (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), a surly delinquent blessed with an angelic soprano, and Pepinot (Maxence Perrin), a runt who keeps a weekend vigil at the school entrance, awaiting parents who have vanished.

The art-house public should be quick to recognize that Mr. Barratier has borrowed from “Cinema Paradiso” for his flashback narrative structure. Moreover, the adult incarnation of Morhange is played by Jacques Perrin, who had the equivalent role in the Italian film. It may enhance the mentoring theme to know that he is also the uncle of Christophe Barratier and a co-producer of “The Chorus,” a movie that makes an engaging case for nepotism in several respects. Maxence Perrin is the son of Jacques Perrin.

Mr. Barratier has an evocative setting, calculated to balance the forbidding aspects of the castle’s dorms and classrooms with a salubrious sense of countryside beyond every window. He avoids the clowning-around approach that weakened “The Fighting Temptations” while observing Mathieu select, rehearse and ultimately polish the choir. This good influence seems as astute as Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley when persuading boys that singing might become a pretty cool pastime.

Unlike O’Malley, he can be permitted romantic vulnerability. Mathieu is attracted to Morhange’s widowed mother and endeavors to ingratiate himself — in vain. This setback is a sentimental plus: It permits Mr. Jugnot to demonstrate how admirably his character can take rejection. There’s no reason a movie audience should fail to embrace him — and wonder if there aren’t some other Gerard Jugnot performances overdue for American appreciation.

***

TITLE: “The Chorus”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and graphic violence; thematic emphasis on juvenile delinquency)

CREDITS: Directed by Christophe Barratier. Screenplay by Mr. Barratier and Philippe Lopes-Curval, based on the film “La Cage aux Rossignols.” Cinematography by Carlo Varini and Dominique Gentil. Production design by Francois Chauvaud. Costume design by Francoise Guegan. Choir director: Nicolas Porte, conducting Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc. Music by Bruno Colais. Original songs by Mr. Barratier and Mr. Colais. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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